By Karen White
Bundling is hot. The idea of lumping unrelated items together and selling the whole shebang for one price has always had its appeal. In times past, it was called a grab bag or a package deal. To today’s generation, it’s a bundle.
Some dance studios are jumping on this marketing bandwagon by bundling costs for their annual recital, competition team, or even the entire school year. These “grand totals” are then paid by parents in evenly divided monthly installments, spreading out the cost and eliminating multiple bills for costumes, recital T-shirts, show DVDs, and other paraphernalia.
It’s an idea that intrigued Amy Simkins, owner/director of Expressions Dance in Bountiful, Utah, when she heard another studio owner chat about its merits at a DanceLife Teacher Conference. “I hadn’t ever thought of doing it, but it was a really nice idea and refreshing to know that someone had done it and had success with it,” says Simkins, who designed a bundle last year for her recital, which she calls a concert. “We had complaints, but they were few compared to the many compliments and happy customers we had with the bundle. Parents thought it was better all around for them and felt they were getting so much more.”
Her concert bundle included costume(s), tights, accessories, concert DVD, class picture, concert T-shirt and shorts, participation trophy, five tickets, and security/chaperone fees.
Bundling fees means simplicity and convenience, all in one package.
Bundle payments for her 250 dancers started in February and ran through June. For those five months, each student owed tuition plus the bundle fee—for example, a student with a $40 monthly tuition charge plus a $29 bundle owed $69. Depending on how many costumes a child needed (and with the studio able to offer costume rentals to some classes for a lesser fee), total bundle fees ranged from about $125 to $175, she says.
The system saved time and minimized paperwork—for both parents and the studio. Parents weren’t stressed about hunting down certain colors or brands of tights. There were no individual DVD or T-shirt order forms to hand out and collect, or costume payments to keep track of. Simkins, who handles all videography and photography in-house, made a larger profit because she sold pictures and DVDs to her full student body.
Simkins’ bundles included a little extra to pay her teachers for their work during the concert and dress rehearsal and to hire a junior high school cheerleading squad as backstage chaperones, which allowed her usual parent volunteers to relax and watch the show.
To add excitement and value to the bundle, Simkins designed a pre-concert kickoff performance. She rented a local park with an amphitheater stage for $100 for one night early in her concert week. Family and friends were invited to bring lawn chairs and picnic baskets and watch as the students performed their concert numbers. Dancers, who wore the recital T-shirts and shorts that they received as part of the bundle, were able to work out their concert jitters in an informal, fun performance.
A first-time event for Expressions Dance, the performance was a huge hit, Simkins says. “This way we could say, ‘We know you paid us all this money, but look at how much you are getting in return. Because of this bundle, your child is going to get a bigger and better experience.’ ”
It was also a good marketing opportunity. “We had our banners out, and people playing on the playground watched. It was a fun community event and something fun for our families to do together,” Simkins says, adding that she would not have been able to provide this extra to her clients if she hadn’t implemented fee bundling.
Customers at Studio 56 Dance Center in Murray, Utah, received a different benefit. When studio owner Amy Moore decided to implement a bundle last year, she immediately called her videographer and photographer to negotiate better deals for her clients. Under the traditional system, she had no way of knowing how many concert DVDs or class pictures would sell. But with every student receiving both through the bundle, she was able to guarantee a sales figure based on her enrollment.
Not only did both vendors settle on a price of $20 each instead of $25, which saved her clients $10 ($5 each off the DVD and photo), but her videographer agreed to mail all the DVDs directly to the clients’ homes. (Photos are still handed out at dress rehearsal.) As always, Moore received a commission on any additional pictures that were sold.
“I was able to tell my parents, ‘I’m saving you money by doing this bundle,’ and I was still able to make money in the process,” Moore says.
Her concert bundle payments ran March through June, which allowed her to keep enrollment open through the end of February. For an average cost of $45 a month, recreational students received costume(s), a picture, a DVD, dress rehearsal snack, six tickets, and a concert T-shirt—plus, similar to Dance Expressions’ family event, a pre-concert kickoff movie night held in an outdoor park.
The concept of bundling wasn’t completely new to Moore, who had created a similar system for her competition team about five years ago. (As a mom, she was constantly being bombarded with bills for her own kids’ activities, and thought there must be a better way.) Team students pay eight installments on a bundle that covers their competition and convention fees, costumes, guest teacher days, choreography fees, shoes, and tights—which runs about $136 to $195 a month.
As soon as a student makes the team, Moore presents the monthly cost and an itemized breakdown of all charges to the parent. “I think my parents really appreciate the thought and the honesty, and that they’re never surprised with things,” she says. Bundling also forces her to plan the team’s year and then stay within the budget she created.
“One reason I hadn’t done it for recital was that I was afraid it would scare the rec parents,” says Moore, who changed her mind after hearing success stories at last summer’s DanceLife Teacher Conference. “I did an online survey, and the biggest question for me was how they liked the bundle. They liked being able to pay over time and not have to come up with all this money at the end. We got a lot of positive feedback, so I think we’ll stick with it.”
Amy Hlavaty Belcher, artistic director of Arabesque Academy of Dancing in Moscow, Pennsylvania, has taken the idea of bundling to a whole new level. She bundles all costs for the entire year—tuition, recital costume and tights, leotard and tights (for class), studio T-shirt, dance bag, and DVDs of the Christmas and spring shows—which are paid on a nine-month schedule. Show tickets are not included, because, Belcher says, “I haven’t figured out a good way that’s fair for everyone.”
Switching from a traditional system to bundling—which she did in 2008, three years after her business was founded—was “scary,” Belcher says. But because of landlord issues and some rookie financial mistakes, she had to declare bankruptcy and wanted to make some real changes in the way she ran her business. “It’s hard to step out of your comfort zone and say ‘Yeah, I know everyone’s been doing it this way for 30 years, but I’m not going to do it like that anymore.’ It was a real leap of faith.”
When new customers inquire about price, she has to explain why another studio charges $30 a month while her cost for the same type of class is $55. “People have gotten comfortable with all-inclusive vacations,” she says. “Once they understand that this is all-inclusive and there isn’t going to be another bill, it makes them more comfortable.”
With the bundle, all 150 students are in the right tights for the recital. Greeting each child at the beginning of the dance year with a dance bag stuffed with a new leotard and tights sets a positive tone, and later, there’s no excuse for students not wearing the proper clothing to class. The hours Belcher used to spend handing out and collecting DVD order forms and chasing down payments have been eliminated.
The downside is that she could probably make a bit more profit by selling items such as costumes and T-shirts individually, but she’s adamant about keeping the monthly cost around twice what her competitors charge for tuition alone. (She does increase the bundle price each year.)
Belcher believes bundling makes her studio seem professional and organized, an image that has helped it to grow. The system also attracts clients who are willing to pay a little bit extra each month for their child’s dance education and are less likely to be complainers.
Realizing that going from à la carte to bundling is a huge change for a studio’s clientele, all three studio owners took great pains to announce and explain the new system. Simkins and Moore put the information into a handbook given to students each August, explained it in detail to new students, and featured it in newsletters.
Simkins was quick to squash any doubts. For parents who balked at having to buy a recital T-shirt and shorts, for example, she explained that the clothing would get plenty of use—not only in the concert finale and kickoff performance, but also for studio appearances in the Fourth of July and Pioneer Days parades. Other common complaints disappeared. She’d always heard gripes about her policy of requiring each student to buy a certain number of concert tickets. This year, with the ticket cost absorbed by the bundle, there were none.
“Just make sure you are upfront when making a big change and really communicate with parents so they know how the change is better for them. People don’t like change and they will get ornery if they think you’re just trying to make another buck off them,” Simkins says.
Moore’s clients signed a concert consent form stating that they understood the bundling procedure and approved of the payment amount. Some parents suggested she change the system to allow some bundle items, such as the DVD or T-shirt, to be optional. “That kind of defeats the purpose,” she says. “I think I’d rather leave it alone.” For Belcher and Simkins, as well, the bundle is an all-or-nothing deal.
Belcher believes bundles work just like the concept of a fast-food value meal—you can charge more, but only if you offer more.
“Honestly, we’ve never had anyone say, ‘How much is the tuition? How much is the T-shirt?’ ” she says. “The more value you add to the package, the more willing the customer will be to accept it. You want to put as much into it as you can reasonably afford.”
Put props to work for fun and impact
By Karen White
Anyone who has sat through endless hours of repetitive competition numbers knows there’s something exciting about a dance that makes good use of props. Props can augment a theme, create character, add technical difficulty, and hide flaws. Props are fun for students to use, add an element of interest for the audience, and open up creative possibilities for the choreographer.
On the other hand, props used poorly can detract from a performance. There’s no ignoring the dancer fumbling with a handheld item. Worse still is the prop carried onstage and then left to sit, barely used or completely ignored, for the dance’s entire three minutes.
Theater actors know that just like hitting a mark or singing in harmony, there’s an art to working with props—and it requires planning (right hand? left hand?), practice (5,6,7, open!), and lots of preparation (anyone have 10 identical old-fashioned hat boxes in their basement?). Here’s some simple advice on how to work with props like a pro.
Have a plan
You’ve spent hours considering songs, mulling over movement, sketching costumes in your mind’s eye, and coming up with concepts. Props require just as much attention. It’s as big a mistake to throw a prop in as an afterthought as it would be to switch your dancers from flat jazz shoes to character heels a week before the first competition.
Take time to think things out. How important is this prop? How much will it add to the overall impact of the dance? Will the dancers carry it the whole time? If they put it down, where will they put it?
It’s a good idea to mentally work through the entire piece with the prop in mind. If it’s something that might prove finicky—for example, a balloon on a string—it’s helpful to create the choreography while holding the prop yourself. That way you’ll know when it might get in the way or how it might react physically to certain steps. For example, can the dancers perform the on-the-floor sequence you want while holding onto a floating balloon?
Choreographing with the prop will help you avoid what I call “disappearing prop syndrome”—which is when a choreographer says, “You’ll be dancing with baskets here,” and then continues to show choreography without any further mention of props at all, leaving the dancers to ponder: Where did they go? Are they on the ground under our feet? Are we balancing them on our heads? When the baskets finally appear in rehearsals, it might be too late to figure out these sorts of things. And the result is never good—I’ve actually seen dancers reach the end of their “prop choreography” and just drop the now-unwanted items onto the stage.
A good rule of thumb is: if there isn’t an overwhelming reason to add props to a number, don’t. And if you do, think it through.
Perfect prop practice
As soon as you show your dancers the first step of choreography, get those props into their hands. It doesn’t matter if what they are holding is the actual item they will have onstage—until you’re done pasting the glitter on those canes or the parasols on backorder arrive, give the dancers a substitute.
If you don’t, it’s too easy for kids to forget they have something in their hands. And if they do forget, they’ll be thrown for a loop when the items show up. Use something that’s close to the shape, size, and weight of the actual item. You can usually mix and match stand-in props from items you find in your garage or basement. Or have the kids bring something from home.
Be clear about how and where they should hold the props. I worked with big, metal buckets once (and no, it wasn’t for “Hard Knock Life”). Sometimes I wanted the dancers to pick up the buckets by the handles with one hand. Other times I wanted both hands flush on either side of the bucket. It matters. Take the time to clarify and practice.
Props can augment a theme, create character, add technical difficulty, and hide flaws.
Be sure to consider props an active element of the choreography. Don’t just have the dancers carry them—have them twirl them, spin them around, hide them behind the back, make them reappear. A pillow can be thrown in the air by one person and caught by a second, who slides it across the floor to a third, all while the dance continues.
In choreographing, I consider any costume articles that come on and off during the number as “props” and give them just as much attention. To do otherwise is to court disaster—if there’s one dancer struggling to get her arm in a sleeve, guess who’s getting the judges’ attention?
Introducing a prop onstage means you’ve created a theatrical reality. That means props must be used in a realistic manner, just as that item would be used in real life. For example, you wouldn’t have your dancers tossing wine glasses at each other and then have them “drink” the wine. Audiences just don’t buy it.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t be creative with props. Fred Astaire created movie magic when he turned a hat rack into a dancing partner in Royal Wedding, and “Good Morning” from Singin’ in the Rain showed us endless imaginative uses for ordinary raincoats. But if you hot-glue coffee cups to trays, make sure your “waitresses” don’t carry the trays upside down. And remember—this theatrical reality extends from wing to wing. Keep up the illusion during entrances and exits.
My biggest peeve is when props prove unimportant: the framed picture that plays a big part in the song’s introduction is set down and forgotten; the newspapers that are used for the first four eights are chucked into the wings.
Throwing or kicking props into the wings is a no-no, the exception being if the action is part of the dance—for example, a girl who is falling out of love takes off her boyfriend’s shirt and “throws it away,” a symbolic gesture that fits into the storyline of the dance.
Still, props don’t have to be carried for an entire number. If your little dancer is doing a storybook song and you want her to begin by reading a book, make sure she returns somehow to the book at the end—even incorporating it into the final pose would be sufficient.
If you need the props to disappear partway through the dance, again, be creative. Make a line that stretches into a wing and hand the props from dancer to dancer, on the beat, until they disappear. Or have some dancers collect the items, and choreograph their exit (with props) and re-entrance (sans props).
Never have the dancers begin with a prop, set it down, dance without looking at it again, and then exit, leaving that prop sitting all by its lonesome. That’s just choreographic laziness. The exception, again, would be if leaving behind the prop completes the storyline.
My mantra—if it’s important enough to include, it’s important enough to use.
Plan for problems
In all my years of theater and dance, I’ve seen just about everything go wrong with props that possibly could. Things break, fly out of hands, get tangled in wigs, or roll into the orchestra pit.
Discuss what the dancers should do if the inevitable occurs. Should they pick up that dropped hat? How do they dance around an item that ends up in the wrong spot? What’s the rule of thumb for prop-related disasters? Don’t assume they know what to do or will be able to improvise on the fly. I once had a group of experienced dancers tell me they thought they were supposed to kick dropped props into the wings. I’ve seen a girl scoop up a dropped ribbon and try to throw it into the wings, only to have it land a miserable three inches away. So she tried again.
Whether the dancers should pick up a dropped item depends on the number. They can dance around most small items without much difficulty. Someone who scoops up an item in a crazy comedy number might not even be noticed, while the same action could disrupt the flow of a quiet lyrical piece. And by all means, if the dancer needs that umbrella to fill her spot in a Busby Berkeley–style stage picture, she should pick it up.
Work out contingency plans. Practice with things going wrong on purpose. See how the dancers react and discuss which actions would be most appropriate. Remind them that it isn’t the end of the world if everyone but one girl has a fan to flutter—the judges will applaud her effort if she just keeps going as if nothing is wrong.
And tell your dancers never, ever, to react to a dropped prop with an “oops” face.
All the same rules apply for set dressing items such as chairs, stairs, or tables. Why are they there? Are they really needed? I saw the most marvelous dance once in which the dancers expressed boredom by slumping on, over, and around an overstuffed easy chair. But far more common and much less marvelous is the dance in which the soloist starts perched on a chair but never uses it again.
If you decide to use large, stationary items (as opposed to background set pieces, which are not meant to be touched by the dancers), make sure they mesh with the feel and theme of the piece. As much care should be put into these choices as into costuming the dancers—it’s jarring and just plain wrong to do “Mein Herr,” set in 1931 Germany, with molded plastic chairs circa 1995.
A bad set piece is worse than none. Case in point: “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” with dancers hopping on and off an unadorned card table. Better: same song, perhaps with dancers’ legs dangling over the edge of the stage for a few seconds at the beginning or end. Or better yet, a song that doesn’t “sing about” a prop or setting.
Set pieces can be difficult to make and tricky to transport. Think things through before basing an entire dance on such items. I’ve learned to construct props that break down into smaller pieces so that all the items for an entire ensemble secretarial number—chairs, desks, phones, steno books, pencils, the works—fit into my midsized sedan. I made sure I could carry everything myself too, eliminating the need to find someone’s dad to hoist and lift.
Props can be a blast, for both yourself and the kids. They can add another dimension to a dance by forcing the choreographer to think creatively about something other than steps. They can make a number memorable. With beginning or recreational dancers, props can disguise shaky technique or a limited movement vocabulary. With advanced dancers, props can add an element of sophistication or difficulty. Just be sure to handle with care.
Ballet competition puts classics, and classes, front and center
By Karen White
“We initially proposed the idea as a great teaching tool, a way for students to work on classical variations. They will have to audition for companies or college, and this helps them get their feet wet and learn what it’s all about.” —Randyl Errica
In a class at Connecticut Classic, a ballet competition, four boys were trying their best to master Colas’ bottle dance from La Fille mal gardée. It wasn’t the zippy footwork and sprightly jumps that had them flustered—it was a simple step into second position with the arms held high in triumph.
Christopher Hird, artistic manager of Boston Ballet School, stopped them again. “Be natural. You are not a prince; you are a farmer,” said the former dancer with a company headlined by international ballerina Sylvie Guillem. “Your body moves into position,” he says, setting the example, “but with lots of swagger. You want to avoid looking like a ballet dancer making poses.”
The boys try again but don’t quite nail it. Hird smiles. “The non-balletic things are the hardest.”
Serious ballet students getting some serious advice from internationally known teachers in an intimate setting is just what the organizers of Connecticut Dance Alliance’s Connecticut Classic had in mind when they created this annual competition-with-master-classes combination two years ago. On March 11, 2012, at Westover School in Middlebury, Connecticut, 43 competitors presented classical variations or pas de deux for the chance to take home one of a dozen scholarships to summer intensives at American Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet, BalletMet Columbus, and the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, among others.
The day before they had been joined by 32 others for technique and variations classes taught by Hird, former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Sylvie Guillaumin-Mesnier, and Leslie Browne, a former American Ballet Theatre principal dancer and star of The Turning Point.
Although attendance numbers were similar to the Classic’s inaugural year, the technical level of the participants was higher, according to Kenneth Hopkins, CDA’s vice president, the Classic’s co-director, and New England Ballet School and Company’s artistic director. “Last year, even the contestants didn’t know what to expect,” he says. “But our reputation is growing. We have world-class judges, the best scholarships. Both lead to quality.”
The idea for the Classic germinated during a discussion several years ago between CDA board members Randyl Errica and Nobel Barker. (Barker, founder and artistic director of New Haven Ballet, died in June 2010.)
“We initially proposed the idea as a great teaching tool, a way for students to work on classical variations,” Errica, Woodbury Ballet’s artistic director, says. “They will have to audition for companies or college, and this helps them get their feet wet and learn what it’s all about.”
Although CDA serves the educational and professional dance sectors throughout the state with a variety of programs, board members “realized we weren’t serving the dance studio community as we could,” says CDA past president Jill Henderson. The organization had never held a competition before but jumped on the idea, deciding to limit the scope to classical ballet.
“We have a mix of ballet and modern dancers on our board, and we have had requests to add contemporary. But the feeling was that contemporary is harder to judge,” says Henderson, a dance faculty member in the Hartt School Community Division. “In classical ballet, it doesn’t matter how expressive you are if your legs are turned in and you are falling over.”
Some small changes were in effect this year, mainly in how the competitors and non-competitors were separated by age and level for the master classes. Juniors ranged in age from 12 to 14 (11-year-olds could attend class, but not compete), with seniors between 15 and 21. A top 10 for both seniors and juniors would be chosen, with gold, silver, and bronze medals up for grabs in both categories and in pas de deux. Scholarships and other prizes, such as a professional photo shoot, a memorial cash prize, and Gaynor Minden dancewear certificates, would go to the high scorers.
Unlike in some competitions, the master classes are held before (instead of after) the competition. “This way the dancers get to know the judges as human beings. Then they can relax and show their best” in the competition, says Joan Kunsch, associate director of Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts. “Also, they are showing their work ethic in class.”
The judges seemed split on whether it’s better to have classes before or after. Hird says sometimes students can be “coached to the nth degree” on a competition piece. “You see slightly different qualities in class. Perhaps they are not as strong here as it appeared onstage.”
Browne, on the other hand, says competitors are “judged on their variations the moment they do them.” The pressure of competition shows if a dancer has enough experience and determination to overcome conditions that might not be perfect—such as having to warm up far in advance. As a judge, she looks for placement, correct use of arms and back, footwork, turnout, stage presence, and quality of movement. “A good foundation,” she says.
Later in the day, after leading the awestruck juniors through a technique class and running determined seniors through a Bournonville variation from Napoli, Browne softens her answer a bit. “Having them in a class first, perhaps I won’t be so mean the next day in critiques,” she says, grinning.
New England Ballet student Cynthia Celone, 14, agrees that meeting the judges in class first makes the next day’s competition less intimidating. She and studio-mate Katie Kurata, 14, brought many lessons back to their home school after competing in last year’s Classic. “It gave us things to think of so we would be better this year, and also things to think about in general,” Celone says.
This year they were joined by several newcomers from their studio, including Sarah Sugrue, 14, who, minutes before the first class, admitted to some shaky nerves. “My goal is just to get through the classes,” she says. “But if I can, I’ll be one step closer to getting a scholarship.”
The competition’s generous scholarships were on the minds of many competitors. A senior competitor from New England Ballet, Jennifer Subtil, 20, described herself as “a college student and broke.” Dancing since age 2, she had “never been to a summer intensive in my life,” and was hoping to win one—despite having to compete with bruised ribs from a partner’s recent “mis-grab” in a rehearsal.
Winning a scholarship last year to Burklyn Ballet Theatre in Johnson, Vermont, literally changed his life, says Spencer Keith, 22. His summer at Burklyn, where he attended classes and worked as a counselor, helped him grow in so many ways, he says. Not only did he have to master six different performances—one for every week of the six-week summer session—but also encourage and mentor younger kids struggling with the fast pace. At Burklyn he also met an administrator from Boston’s José Mateo Ballet Theatre, who encouraged him to audition for the company, which he did, successfully.
Although Keith is now a professional dancer, he was eager to return. “This is a family I love,” he says. “I want to thank them for all the help they have given me, which is endless.”
Another repeat participant, Joseph Heitman, 16, of Woodbury Ballet and New England Ballet, says last year’s Classic was his first competition experience, yet he left with a four-week full scholarship to Burklyn. “It taught me a lot about stage presence, how to present yourself for an audience,” he says. “It’s also great to get out and do variations that you don’t generally get to do.”
Before last year’s Classic, CDA board member Joyce DiLauro, director of Starship Dance Theater, had always shied away from competitions. “It was the time, the expense. We are a small ballet school,” she explains. “My philosophy is always that we’re not competing with others.”
But she’s seen how the four dancers she brought to the first event have grown. Younger students at her studio “are in awe” and striving to keep up, she says. Not only did her students absorb the coaching and advice provided by the judges, both in class and through written critiques of their performances, but they learned other lessons as well. “One girl didn’t realize how long she would have to wait, and her feet fell asleep in her pointe shoes,” DiLauro says. “I knew how hard she had worked, and when she fell off pointe, I cried. But it was a growing experience, a part of life.”
This year’s event provided plenty for the young dancers to work on. In one studio Hird served up a bit of Frederick Ashton’s Birthday Offering, showing the girls how to remain true to classical positions while adding their own flair. When one girl’s raised arm fell too far back, he explained how that error would throw her partner off balance. Another dancer let her struggles show in her expression. “Pleasant faces are always nice,” he gently reminded her.
Guillaumin-Mesnier, a graduate of Paris Opera Ballet School, taught the female lead’s Act 1 variation from Giselle, with its killer diagonal of hops en pointe. She was precise about body positioning, down to the proper way to hold up a peasant skirt with two delicate fingers. When one girl’s attempt at the manège of piqués and chaînés petered out, Guillaumin-Mesnier shook her head. “Oh, never give up,” she said in an encouraging tone.
Later in the senior technique class, she again took a quitter to task. “You have a double turn, but you don’t believe it, yes? Stay up.” The girl nodded and tried again. Success.
One quiet little clump of juniors admitted that while they “all love the stage,” they were “ecstatic” to take class from Browne. Eugenie Chen and Chloe Knopf, both 14, and Solana Snow, 15, all of the Hartt School Community Division, say their dance classes and rehearsals add up to about 26 hours a week. All dream of a career in ballet.
“We are all doing new variations,” Chen says of the competition. “Our teachers picked out ones that show what we’re good at, and also what we need improvement on, so we’re not just here to win but to grow as dancers and artists.”
That strategy would be applauded by Browne, who says competitions are about improving, not winning. “Some students get very wrapped up about whether they get to the finals, or get first, second, or third. Hopefully, the teacher prepares them mentally,” she says. “It’s up to your teacher to give you a goal to strive for.”
The next day, the students took all that classroom learning with them as they headed to the stage. Competitors representing 10 Connecticut ballet schools performed a choice of variations and pas de deux from a set list of classics such as Paquita, Don Quixote, Flames of Paris, La Bayadère, and Harlequinade. The Westover School auditorium was crowded with friends and well-wishers who were treated to performances that ranged from capable to impressive. Most still have much to work on, but everyone’s sincerity and love of ballet shone through.
Ending in the Junior Top 10 were Rowan Young, Cassidy Schod, Patricia Liu, Damiano Scarfi, Samantha Howe, Avery Lasky, Martina Viadana, Katherine Kurata (bronze), Eugenie Chen (silver), and Chloe Knopf (gold).
The Senior Top 10 included Samantha Gaughan, Megan Krementowski, Haley Altman-Cipot, Alice Garsuah, Maggie Powderly, Mikayla Sapak, Natalie Rock and Gabrielle Collins (tied for bronze), Spencer Keith (silver), and Kathryn Manger (gold). Rock and Keith’s pas de deux took silver, the only award given in the category.
After the scholarships had been awarded and the competitors left the stage to hugs and accolades, board members hailed the weekend as a success. “I thought it was an amazing weekend,” CDA president Robert Reader, Hartford Stage education programs manager, says. “Everybody put forth their best effort. Parents are telling me they’re pleased with the educational aspect of this competition and the opportunity it provides for growth.”
Next year, DiLauro says, CDA wants more schools to participate, particularly studios and programs from outside of Connecticut. She herself will be back. “In life, especially in dance life, you do compete,” DiLauro says. “This competition has been very friendly. I was very excited to see my students up there being beautiful.
“Maybe this is helping me to see competitions in a different light.”
The results are preliminary, but they’re a no-brainer to anyone involved in arts education. A study has found that “children that partake in music activity in a group setting are more prone to developing one of humankind’s noblest traits: empathy.”
The ramifications of this research are discussed in an article on San Francisco Classical Voice (sfcv.org) called “Is Music the New Social Media? ‘Empathy’ Entrainment.” The yearlong study at the University of Cambridge (UK) explored the effects of group music activities on 52 children ages 8 to 11, roughly half boys and half girls. They were divided into two groups, one of which was given group music-based games and the other activities that involved texts and drama only. The children in the music group scored higher on a test that measured empathy.
The experiments didn’t involve dance, but the correlation is obvious. The music activity stressed what lead researcher Tal-Chen Rabinowitch called “entrainment,” in which the children had to become “rhythmically attuned to one another” and “[i]mitation and the sharing of musical goals were also stressed.” Although the imitation games were largely improvisational, “[e]ach child playing a musical instrument had to attend to other children in the group.” Sounds like a dance class, doesn’t it? In effect, teachers are sowing the seeds of empathy.
If the study’s results prove significant and valid, the data will serve well those who argue for arts education. As Joe Landon, executive director of California Alliance for Arts Education, says in the article, “Quality arts programs have the potential to empower and engage students in ways that can promote learning across the board. Students who have a positive sense of themselves are more likely to embrace learning new things and find success in school.”
The article points out that the study raises the issue of individual versus group music education, since most music instruction “is geared toward private performance.” In dance, the opposite is true. So, dance teachers, take note: if group activities in which children are rhythmically attuned to one another promote empathy, your students will have it in spades.
Just one more reason why dance education matters. —Cheryl A. Ossola, Editor in Chief
Did anyone catch that episode of Bunheads where Michelle discovered Fanny’s hatbox filing system? The one where her bills were deemed “should be paid” or “might be paid” and stored in oversized, decorative boxes? So funny—so true! I wished I had all your numbers so I could mass text, “Turn on your TVs right now!”
But the episode got better when Michelle (the amazing Sutton Foster) found out that Fanny (my hero, Kelly Bishop) had precious little money to pay even the “have to be paid” bills. But the studio is crawling with kids, Michelle says (or something along those lines), forcing Fanny to admit that all but nine of her 75 students are “on scholarship.” Michelle is stunned—“Only nine kids pay? Nine? Nine?” Fanny counters that times are tough, and someone’s father lost his job, and what is she going to do? She can’t deny these kids their ballet!
Still funny—but ouch! I was torn between feelings of delight that the show so cleverly exposed our secret little catch-22, and feelings of despair for the very same reason.
I can’t begin to recall how many conversations I’ve had with studio owners about parents who have cancer or mortgage woes. So sometimes the studio owners just “forget” about a bill or two. Sometimes they use their precious little time off to organize fund-raisers or quietly spread the word in the hope that other parents will cover some costs. They eat the costume charges, or dig deep to pay their staff when the tuition is overdue.
What else are they going to do when they’ve watched a child grow up, shared her smiles and her struggles, given their hearts away?
On the show, Michelle demands that everyone pay up and then has to beg for forgiveness when all the trees and flowers in Fanny’s “environmental ballet” quit. She’ll learn. It’s not that studio owners are bad businesspeople or sentimental pushovers or just plain dumb. It’s just that, like Fanny, they can’t deny these kids their dance. —Karen White, Associate Editor
The 2012 graduates of the University of Pennsylvania got some unusual commencement advice. Nipun Mehta, the founder of ServiceSpace.org, told the Ivy Leaguers that though everyone else might expect them to fly, he wants them to walk. What he said makes sense for all of us, and it seems particularly timely advice for our business-focused issue.
Mehta and his wife spent three months walking across India, and his speech contained many personal anecdotes. (For the whole transcript, see huffingtonpost.com and other sites.) What I’d like to share with you, in edited form, are his words on four behaviors he pegs to the acronym WALK.
Witness: “When you walk, you quite literally see more. . . . Higher speeds smudge our peripheral vision, whereas walking actually broadens your canvas and dramatically shifts the objects of your attention. . . . A walking pace is the speed of community.”
Accept: “When walking in this way, you place yourself in the palm of the universe, and face its realities head on. We walked at the peak of summer, in merciless temperatures hovering above 120 degrees. . . . [W]e had to cultivate the capacity to accept the gifts hidden in even the most challenging of moments.”
Love: “Most of us believe that to give, we first need to have something to give. . . . We have forgotten how to value things without a price tag. Hence, when we get to our most abundant gifts—like attention, insight, compassion—we confuse their worth because they’re, well, priceless.”
Know Thyself: “[W]hen we serve others unconditionally, we shift from the me-to-the-we and connect more deeply with the other. That matrix of inter-connections allows for a profound quality of mental quietude. . . . [W]e are then able to see clearly into who we are and how we can live in deep harmony with the environment around us. . . .”
A three-month pilgrimage isn’t possible for all of us, and it might not yield the same epiphanies Mehta’s did. But I’m just fine with stealing his. —Cheryl A. Ossola, Editor in Chief
Where There’s a ‘Why,’ There’s a Way
The actor was not getting it. In a middle school production of Fame I was choreographing, his character, playing a performing-arts high school student cast as Mercutio, had the line “They have made worms’ meat of me!” The script told him to grab his gut in an “overly theatrical” manner, which our show’s director was more than happy to demonstrate. But still, the actor’s performance was bland.
Running into the actor in the wings, I blurted out, “What’s worms’ meat?” Met with a blank stare, I explained that, in Shakespeare, “worms’ meat” means the person is dead. Why? Because worms wiggle their way through cracks in wooden coffins and proceed to suck the eyeballs out of dead corpses and make a feast of every bit of rotten flesh. (I was talking to a middle school boy, remember.) For the first time in rehearsals, I had not only his full attention but that of about a dozen performers who listened in, slack-jawed.
The next time he delivered the line, he grabbed his gut as if Ridley Scott’s alien was about to burst forth. The director leaped from her seat. “Bravo, Jacob!”
I call what I did the magic “why.” As teachers, we tell kids what to do, show them what we mean, and ask them to try. It doesn’t matter if you are teaching math, English, dance, or soccer—the method is the same. But in the rush to jam in as much as we can on a deadline—and a director blocking a play is in the same boat as a dance teacher preparing for recital—the “why” often gets short shrift.
I think real learning takes place when students understand the reasons for what we’re asking them to do. Explaining them takes time, for sure, because there isn’t always a simple answer, and many times the answer itself begets many more “whys.” And the discussion might lead us teachers to admit we aren’t exactly sure “why” ourselves. The best result, of course, is when we ask the question and the kids fill in the blank.
So keep a few “whys” in your back pocket to throw around the next time the kids are bored, or struggling, or flippant. Why? Because I said so. —Karen White, Associate Editor
The Brand UR helps kids go from victimized to popular
By Karen White
Mix a mother’s frustration, the creativity of a dance teacher, and a positive message—and top it all off with social networking—and what do you get? The Brand UR.
Jodi LaFountain of Carver, Massachusetts, a teacher at Manomet School of Dance in Plymouth, came up with The Brand UR, a line of clothing with an anti-bullying message, to help her daughter deal with a school bully. T-shirts and fleece jackets might seem like an odd line of defense, but LaFountain has found that first-graders to high schoolers have been empowered by wearing clothing that states they are “popUlaR.”
“People are jumping on board with this idea. It’s such an easy concept, but it’s made such an impact,” she says. “We had one middle school boy who said when he puts on his UR T-shirt it’s like his Superman cape. Kids ask him, ‘Why are you wearing that shirt?’ And he says, ‘It’s because I’m anti-bullying,’ and then nobody wants to touch him.”
And what an impact. LaFountain obtained a business license for The Brand UR on January 1. Only seven weeks later, she was fielding phone calls from potential investors and New York fashion designers, welcoming pint-sized stars from TLC’s Toddlers & Tiaras to an official launch party, and spending her already-busy off-studio hours shipping out orders. As of St. Patrick’s Day, a total of 525 items from the UR clothing line had been sold.
“Sometimes my husband and I just look at each other,” she says. “We were just so naïve. It really was just about a T-shirt my daughter could wear to school so she’d feel confident.”
The story begins with her daughter, Addison, a first-grader who was dealing with bullying so pervasive and consistent last November and December that the little girl who loved school was starting to make excuses not to go. At first LaFountain found herself dismissing her daughter’s claims—“I mean, it’s first grade, how bad can it be?”—and advised Addison just to stay away from the troublemaker, Emily (not her real name). But then the jibes of “we don’t want to play with you; we don’t like you” turned into a trip and a shove, and LaFountain found herself spitting mad.
“I told Addison, ‘I’m gonna make you a T-shirt that says Emily is my bully, and you’re going to wear it to school tomorrow because I’ve had enough of this.’ But then driving to the studio, I started to think, ‘I wish there was something people could wear to stick up to bullies,’ ” she says.
By the time LaFountain strode into her first dance class, ideas were percolating. She would make a shirt, but rather than making a personal attack on one person, it would say “Popular,” based on one of the bully’s comments to Addison: “You’ll never be popular.” But on her shirt, it would read “UR Popular,” turning the sometimes-negative label on its head.
That night she pitched the idea to her husband, Brian, a fiberglass technician. They drew up a logo—he came up with the idea of highlighting the U and R in the word “popular”—and had one shirt made. Addison wore it to school, where her friends saw it and wanted shirts of their own. LaFountain’s dance students—who had been following her stories of Addison’s problems—also clamored for shirts. The first batch of 12 silk-screened shirts quickly sold out. By January 25, official “No Name Calling Day” (otherwise known as “Black Out Bullying”) in Massachusetts, the couple had sold 75 shirts that commemorated the event.
With a business growing out of nowhere, the couple had decisions to make. First and foremost: choosing a name. Thoughts of calling it “popular” were discarded when they realized the endless design possibilities that could flow from the words “you are.” With The Brand UR, LaFountain says, “you decide who you are.”
A customized option allows customers to fill the space after “UR” with whatever word they like, such as “UR Dancer,” “UR Gymnast,” or “UR Band Geek.” They’ve filled orders for unique phrases, like “UR Dorky” and “UR Majestic,” and for school owners who wanted shirts that sport their studio’s name after the UR.
Quickly the LaFountains threw together a website and Facebook page, hiring a photographer to snap shots of UR clothing modeled by LaFountain’s dancers and their male friends from local hockey and football teams. High school kids began wearing the shirts to school and posting pictures on Facebook, attracting the attention of the Plymouth North High School news crew, who filmed a story on Addison and UR. Word spread virtually, and fast.
First-graders to high schoolers have been empowered by wearing clothing that states they are “popUlaR.”
The brand’s official launch party, held February 25 at Indian Pond Country Club in Kingston, Massachusetts, attracted a host of celebrities wanting to be connected to the anti-bullying label. They included actress Raiko Bowman from The Hunger Games, Boston actress Meredith Prunty, Toddlers & Tiaras stars Paisley Dickey and Mackenzie Owens, and anti-bullying advocate Elizabeth Percy of DearBullies.org, along with about 250 supporters. Not one celebrity asked to be paid to appear, LaFountain says.
A local news crew was on hand to film speeches from both celebrities and regular kids about how bullying has impacted their lives. The Brand UR product line—now featuring hoodies and other styles of sweatshirts, polos, fleece jackets, sweat jackets, thermal shirts, hats, tanks, yoga pants, sports bras, headbands, jersey tops, and a variety of Ts—was paraded in a fashion show. At one point LaFountain asked the crowd to take and post photos of the party on Facebook and send out some tweets, and before the evening was over a local radio station reporter who caught one of the tweets arrived to do an interview.
A family friend, Shawn Lopes, offered to write and record a song for the launch party. When LaFountain played the song (which other artists also worked on) at the studio during warm-ups her students loved it, and she got the idea of choreographing and filming a dance to it. The resulting video, “Popular,” features acting scenes of bullying intercut with seven of LaFountain’s dance students grooving through some hip-hop moves. The video was posted on YouTube late on a Sunday, and within 36 hours had generated 3,000 hits.
And word continues to spread. Model Life Magazine heard about the brand from the Toddlers & Tiaras people and shot a photo spread in early April for a magazine feature. Another call came in from a New York fashion designer interested in featuring the clothing in an upcoming runway show, she says. A Los Angeles production company that works with the Black Eyed Peas, Meryl Streep, and Lisa Kudrow caught the “Popular” video and sent an email “about sponsoring or coming in on a music video that will be about anti-bullying,” LaFountain announced on Facebook.
All the attention is flattering, but it doesn’t pay the business’ expenses, from producing and shipping the clothing to paying for the launch party. The couple—admittedly conservative with money and having no debt at the time—decided against investors. Instead, they obtained a business credit card to fund the company’s operating expenses.
It was a scary step: LaFountain had dabbled in event planning, but the couple had no experience running a retail operation. They also had no idea how much selling power their anti-bullying message had, but decided to “do it for Addison” and just go for it. “Our goal was never to make money, but just to spread awareness and stand up for our daughter,” she says. “We figured if we broke even on what we invested, we’d be fine.”
By late March, the business was still in the red and the couple hadn’t yet agreed to any deals or financial arrangements with outside parties. Still, the LaFountains knew they wanted to use some of the eventual proceeds for a college scholarship fund, so they donated $500 of their own money toward the first award. (Next year, they hope to fund it through a percentage of profits.)
People are amazed that the company is only a few months old, she says. Potential investors and movie producers ask to speak to “our marketing team,” or expect her to travel to New York or New Jersey for business meetings. Right now, LaFountain spends about 20 hours a week filling orders and fielding phone calls. Her family, fellow dance teachers, and students help out by organizing launch party details or handling the brand’s Twitter account. She teaches one morning and three nights a week at the studio and takes care of her three children while working on new designs, such as a “Lucky to Be Me” St. Patrick’s Day shirt and “This Chicks [sic] Popular” for Easter.
As news of UR has spread, LaFountain has become a celebrity in her own right. At a Toys “R” Us checkout, a young clerk commented on her shirt. “Oh, you wear PopUlaR? Do you know a girl named Jodi?”
“I’m Jodi,” LaFountain said.
“Oh my gosh—I can’t believe the lady who made PopUlaR is in my line!”
The popularity of PopUlaR is important, LaFountain says, because bullying can’t be beaten by one person—it’s going to take a united front. She’s heard of girls chatting with other teens at malls because they all were wearing UR. Dance studios wear the shirts to competitions. No longer picked on, Addison herself doesn’t want to wear anything that isn’t UR.
“Kids contact us every day and tell us their [bullying] stories, say the shirts make them feel confident,” she says. “But most messages are from parents who I’ve never met before, in Maryland, Ohio, places that aren’t around here. They say, ‘I’m so thankful you were smart enough to stand up when I didn’t.’ The best part of all this is when we open those emails. It’s exactly what we wanted to do—spread awareness.
“Now people want us to make a shirt that says, ‘It all started with a T-shirt.’ ”
The 3-D documentary Pina has had the U.S. dance world talking since it opened here last December, and the film came up during a pre-show Meet the Artist interview I did with San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Damian Smith last March. A longtime dancer who’s known for his artistry in both physicality and interpretation, Smith cited the film as reaffirming that what’s most important in dance is intent.
I couldn’t agree more. I’ve seen the late German choreographer Pina Bausch’s company, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, in performance, and the experiences left me stunned. But the film, with its concentrated scrutiny of dances, revisiting them in various forms and with different dancers, revealed even more pointedly the phenomenal power of intent.
Bausch’s work is oblique, coming from a deep place of pain and loneliness (“Dance, dance,” she once said, “otherwise all is lost”), embodying desperation, desire, and other equally raw emotions, along with a quirky sense of humor. But unlike some dances that leave viewers wondering what they just saw, Bausch’s works offer a dizzying choice of interpretations. That’s because her dancers know exactly what the dances mean to them. They are invested—body, mind, and soul—in the movement given to them, and because they so clearly have something to say, they in turn give us a work of art that we bring our own meaning to.
Some of the dancers quoted in the film said they were often confused about what Bausch wanted from them. One of them said that when she told Bausch she felt lost, the choreographer said to keep looking inside herself. The dancer said she didn’t know what she was looking for, and Bausch said only this: keep searching.
What that dancer found is what we all want in dance—an experience that shakes us to the core, makes us question what we think of the world, and gives us reasons to keep searching for our own reasons to go on. —Cheryl A. Ossola, Editor in Chief
Tears and Togetherness
It was only the first competition of the new season and boy, were the tears flowing already! I started to think: where are the TV crews when you need ’em? Drama, tears, girls in costumes making a scene—we had it all, and we weren’t even halfway through the first day.
One girl started it all. A senior. Apparently just moments before the girls headed onstage for their lyrical number, she realized this was one of her last competitions with teammates she loves from a dance studio she adores. One tear and a tiny sniffle led to “Ooohhhh, are you crying?” and before anyone realized what was going down, all the girls were in each other’s arms, fussing over each other and sobbing with gusto.
They were almost back in control when someone’s 6-year-old sister showed up and, without a word, held out a tiny package of tissues.
And as they dissolved again in laughter and splotchy mascara, I thought—this is what all dance teams should be about. Friendship. Support. Doing what you love with people who share the same passion. Pressure, but the kind born of hard work and self-determination. Memories.
During awards, the MC called up several members of this group. In an interesting twist, the competition had asked this team to create a special award to be given by the judges to another team. They chose the name “Together at Heart” and described it thus: “To a team that not only dances together with precision, but dances together as friends.” I am sure that the dancers who won the award will cherish it.
There were other special moments as well: a couple of high scores, a choreography award, and a judge’s recognition of one girl who, although only in group numbers, stood out because of her endless smile and vivacious energy. Her teammates were tickled pink. “Hey Dee,” they couldn’t stop teasing, “guess that puts you at the top of the pyramid!”
All that, and three more competitions to go. Now where’s that little girl with the tissues? —Karen White, Associate Editor
Coping With “Copy-ography”
It made No. 4 on TenduTV’s blog listing “APAP Preview: Ten Things the Dance Field Should Be Talking About in 2012,” and I’m sure it has been popping up in your conversations more and more. What is it? The issue of intellectual property rights, otherwise known to dance teachers as “Hey, that’s my choreography!”
This is a slippery subject, but one that is probably causing plenty of heartache and heartburn this competition season. It would seem that if an idea came out of your head, you would own that idea, but life today is rarely that simple. The professional world with all its contracts and lawyers still can’t figure out if Beyoncé really “stole” those steps from Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker when putting together her “Countdown” video.
It’s even worse for those of us in the dance studio trenches, where video cameras outnumber contracts 1,000 to 1. What prevents a teacher from using steps she picked up at a convention in her own dances and calling them her own? What stops Studio C from re-creating Studio D’s award-winning competition number from last season? Or, with more and more competitions streaming live, even stealing from this season?
Years ago I read a magazine article about a studio that did a number to “It’s Oh So Quiet” with the dancers as librarians. Eureka! Not even having seen it, I immediately imagined what it would look like: the funny moments, the choreography, how we’d use books and chairs and tables to build this crazy number. As tempted as I was (and believe me, you know those days when you’d kill for just one good brainstorm), I never did it, because, well, it was someone else’s idea.
Some people see nothing wrong with lifting ideas, songs, concept, even entire choreography sequences, from work they catch on YouTube, in competition, in recitals. One of my studio-owner friends calls it “copy-ography.” We chatted about it one night after lessons, and while in some industries a similar discussion might involve copyrights or compensation, we just decided the whole situation is very sad. I think I’ll stick to my own ideas, thank you, good or bad. —Karen White, Associate Editor
It’s a Team Effort
The musical The Wild Bride, performed by Cornwall, England–based Kneehigh Theatre Company at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is a prime example of a collaborative process that works. The production is stunning, with a rustic set, emotionally driven dance numbers, and music that’s a blend of blues and Eastern European folk—nothing I’ve ever heard before.
Because I am interested in adapting literary works for the stage, without simply reiterating the text theatrically, I was intrigued by how in this production (adapted from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Handless Maiden”), word, set, movement, and score came together in a way that made a 150-plus-years-old story seem fresh, complex, and relevant.
In the program notes, Emma Rice, the show’s director and co-director of Kneehigh, reveals the troupe’s creative process. She works on sketches with the designer to create an environment for the story to live in and exchanges music that feels right to her with the musical director/composer, who then comes up with a “musical palette of melodies.” Amazingly, no script is created with the writer; instead poems, lyrics, and ideas are produced and a structure is mapped out in order to maintain an element of surprise. “The shared imagination is greater than any individual, so we begin the rehearsal by returning to the story,” Rice says. “We tell it to each other, scribble thoughts on huge pieces of paper, relate it to our own experience. We create characters, always looking to serve and subvert the story.”
So that is how a collaborative process that engages all the players fosters original, creative art. Regardless of the story that compels us to the stage, unique work often is not created alone. Sometimes you need others, and even your students, to help you scratch that itch. —Arisa White, Editorial Assistant
By Karen White
The way Kathy Kozul teaches it, there’s no lying around in floor-barre class.
This specialized lesson is a mental and physical workout—one that forces students to concentrate on which muscle is doing the work, how the hips are placed, whether the pelvis is tucked. Then, once she has the students thinking as much as they are moving, she throws in repetitions of strengthening exercises to firm the core, strengthen the leg muscles, and create flexible, functioning feet.
It’s not a class for the casual dancer, but it is for “students who are dedicated and disciplined and want a future in dance,” says Kozul, who teaches at The Gold School in Brockton, Massachusetts, and is an adjunct faculty member at Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, Massachusetts.
“I came up with my class to help them better understand their bodies and strengthen their bodies, so they can do what they love for a long time and be happy. When kids say, ‘Floor barre taught me so much about my body and how to work correctly and that I’m a better dancer because of it,’ that’s what it’s about.”
The late Zena Rommett is generally credited with developing floor barre in the 1960s as a way to refine body placement, strengthen joints, increase vitality, and help rehabilitate injuries. However, her 2010 obituary in the New York Times noted she was not the only teacher of the time to explore floor-based training: the Russian-born, Paris-based teacher Boris Kniaseff taught his “barre par terre” primarily to ballet dancers.
Kozul, a former dancer with Boston Ballet and Boston Repertory Ballet, was not exposed to floor barre while training for her career. Many times, she recalls, her teacher’s attitude was one of “I don’t care how you do it—just do it.” As a teacher, she became familiar with the method while observing the classes of other teachers, some of whom taught it for injury prevention purposes.
Once Kozul started teaching, she wanted her students to understand the “why” behind the technique they were learning. She realized that by placing the students on the floor and removing all the elements that can vie for their attention (such as the music, mirror, and complex choreography), the students could more easily turn their focus inward, toward their own muscles and alignment.
In an upright position, the weight of the body presses down on the standing leg, holding it firm. This does not mean, though, that the leg is engaged. “When in an upright position, it is easy to let go of the supporting side, concentrate on working only the working leg, and not work the legs in opposition to each other,” Kozul says. On the floor it becomes quite obvious (when doing rond de jambe, for example) when both legs are not engaged—hips will lift off the floor, the “standing” leg will roll in, and such. Also, because they’re not holding onto the barre, students can place a hand on their supporting side and feel if that hip moves out of place.
Simply circling a leg in rond de jambe or doing tendus are of no use if the students are not aware that both sides need to work in opposition. “As they start to lift the working leg, feeling that resistance, turning out from underneath, the other leg needs to be working just as hard from underneath to maintain the turnout,” says Kozul. “If the students are doing it correctly, they’re going to feel both legs working.”
Kozul has the class watch while she demonstrates an exercise; then she has one student demonstrate. Most of the students don’t immediately understand what they are being asked to do, but they see the differences in the two demonstrations. “They’ll say, ‘Oh wow, she did this; you didn’t do that,’ so it’s a really good visual concept for the kids,” she says.
As the students do the exercise together Kozul makes individual corrections, even asking a student who is off base if everyone can watch as she helps her work the exercise correctly. No one has ever said no. “Students usually take this class knowing that this is going to help them reach their goals, especially if they can learn these exercises well enough to do them on their own,” she says.
For young dancers
Kozul introduces floor barre to dancers ages 9 and under with a few fun, easy exercises at the start of a regular ballet class. Because the students are generally too young to understand how to engage various muscles, Kozul uses props such as books and balls to make her point.
1. Have dancers sit with a book standing against the lower back. If the students sink, the book will fall.
2. Point and flex the feet. Work on moving the foot in sections—flex the toes as the foot reaches to demi-point, then fully flex; repeat in the opposite direction. Emphasize stretching, not crunching, the toes.
3. Dancers hold a ball in one hand, shaping the hands into a classic ballet position. They hold the arms in second and then bring them together to switch the ball to the other hand, opening the arms again. Then they bring the arms center, raising them to fifth with both hands holding the ball.
4. Sit with the legs parallel. Turn the legs out, working from underneath the leg (not the feet), lengthening the legs so the toes “reach to the mirror,” and the head “reaches toward the ceiling.”
For older dancers
Serious study of floor barre begins at ages 10 to 12, and the difficulty of the class increases accordingly as the dancers’ overall technique increases. Kozul’s floor barre takes up a full 60- or 90-minute lesson once a week, although when students become familiar with the technique she can sometime fit the exercises into 45 minutes of a 90-minute class, leaving the rest of the time for a traditional lesson.
Here are some basic exercises.
1. Pointing and flexing the feet (in sections; see description above); use a Thera-Band for greater resistance.
2. In a supine position, turn legs in and out, working from underneath and rotating the leg in the hip socket (can also be done with one leg pointing to the ceiling). “If students get one thing out of floor-barre class, it should be learning where turnout comes from,” Kozul says.
3. Lying in a supine position with one leg lifted, curl the chin to the chest and walk the hands up the leg, grasping the calf. Lift the torso to sit on the tailbone without curving the back, and feel the stretch in the back, hips, and hamstring. Flex and stretch the foot; pull the leg in to the chest by bending the elbows. Walk the hands down the leg and return to a supine position. Throughout, keep the non-raised leg firmly on the floor and push the belly button to the spine.
4. Lying on the side of the left hip, place the right foot on the floor in front of the left knee. The right hand can be placed on the floor in front of the abdominals for balance. Relax the leg. Concentrate on pulling up the abdominals and lengthening the hips. Do not tuck. Make sure hips are squared off and not turned out. Engage the rotator muscle and use the inner thigh muscle to pull the knee back to passé, keeping hips square and parallel and lengthening in the abdominals. From passé, extend to a side attitude, then développé to second.
5. Développés can be done lying supine (the leg goes to the front and to second). Battement can be done lying supine (to the front), or on the side (to second), or on the stomach (to the back). Tendus can be done lying on the stomach (to the back and second) or supine (to the front and second).
6. Strengthening and conditioning exercises, plus Thera-Band exercises, especially those that target the abdominals (crunches for both lower and upper abdominals) and back (chest raises). To avoid bulking up, emphasize lengthening, not crunching, the muscles.
The devil is in the details
There are many DVDs and online sources for floor-barre exercises. Kozul said the Zena Rommett series is popular, but which exercises are best depends on what teachers want to accomplish in a class. “Zena’s floor-barre class and mine are different,” she says. “I do a lot more with teaching the students how to turn out from the hips and not from the ankles and knees.” But more than the individual exercises, she says, “the main purpose of my floor-barre lesson is to make sure the students understand proper technique and where it’s coming from.” Here are some points to remember:
- Students need to work both sides of the body in opposition (not roll toward the working side) and keep hips square.
- Always move the working leg with resistance, and make sure the other leg works from underneath to maintain the turnout. Stress that turnout is achieved by using the rotators muscles, not overturning from the ankles and knees.
- Don’t be afraid to backtrack and try again if students are not working correctly.
- Height is not necessarily the goal. “They all think they’re the best if they can get that leg behind their ear, whereas I’m looking for the student who is doing it correctly” even if her leg might be the lowest, Kozul says. She adds that if students are working correctly, the extension will come in time.
- Take the time to explain why. “They’ll think, ‘The teacher said I have to do it with my hip down—well, I can’t, so I’m just going to lift it,’ because they have no concept of why I want their hip to be down,” she says.
- Forgoing music in favor of counting out the exercises allows students to concentrate and hear corrections better.
Not for everyone
Kozul’s brand of floor barre is not for everyone, and it’s certainly not for recreational students. Since the class focuses on strengthening the body and increasing understanding, it can take some time before students see or feel results. It can also be a frustrating process for older students who have been working their muscles one way for many years and now are being asked to make a change.
“Kids will jump right in and think it’s going to be great, but it’s a lot of hard work and retraining and retooling your body. You have to be willing to make that commitment,” Kozul says. But she’s been teaching her version of floor barre for about a decade and says she has “seen the difference. We’re talking about kids who don’t have perfect turnout but have learned to use what they have to the utmost of their ability.”
She believes there have been other benefits for her students as well. One is fewer injuries to hips and knees, something she attributes to the fact that they know how to work correctly—including understanding how (and why) to warm up properly. She often sees her floor-barre students in the studio lobby working with their Thera-Bands as they prepare for other classes.
Another benefit: students are quicker to grasp corrections in ballet class. Now if she says, “You initiated that tendu by letting go of your supporting side,” the students remember how the movement felt on the floor and can correct accordingly.
“When you have so many students in a ballet class, it’s hard for them to understand every technical concept, whereas if you can slow it down, put it on the floor, and pay more attention to detail, it makes things so much easier for them to understand,” Kozul says.
Overall, she believes that floor barre has made her students stronger, better, and (dare we say) more enlightened. “If you’re in dance for the long haul, your body is your instrument and your career,” Kozul says. “You need to take care of it from the beginning.”
For many of our readers, summer is a time to slow down, maybe even take some time off. And so it seemed like perfect timing to suggest using the slower months of summer to look inward and do some personal maintenance. We all take our cars to the mechanic and our kids to their checkups, but how often do we focus on our own well-being? In this issue, we’ve got some ideas on how to do just that, through a creative process of goal setting, a primer on meditation, some apps to help you with on-the-go wellness, and a few fun tips on teas and inspirational jewelry. It’s a package designed with you in mind, the brainstorm of my editorial assistant, Arisa White.
And now I’m going to take the idea of introspection a step further and say that it could (and perhaps should) include some awareness-raising about our attitudes toward others. So I’m going to steal some suggestions worth noting from an online holiday card posted last December by SYPartners.com, a company that promotes transformation in organizations. (Some of the wording is theirs; some I’ve paraphrased.)
First, exercise relentless empathy. How? Set aside your own worldview and see someone else’s. Dignify others by acknowledging their value.
Second, be that person. Which one? The one who’s fully present, calls everyone by name, and starts sentences with “What if?”
Third, curmudgeons be damned. There’s good in everyone, so find it. Expect the best in people and that’s usually (eventually) what you’ll get.
Fourth, embrace not knowing. In a fast-changing world, it’s the best way to open yourself to great things.
It’s not too late to add these behaviors to your list of resolutions for 2012. I’m sure going to try—are you game? —Cheryl A. Ossola, Editor in Chief
I’m engrossed in a new book, and it’s a real page turner. I know whodunit, so there’s no mystery. In fact, I’m pretty familiar with the protagonist and his life story. But still, I’m savoring each word and can’t wait to see what the next paragraph brings.
It’s Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954–1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes by Stephen Sondheim. I wasn’t too thrilled to pick it up initially—I have a shelf full of musical-theater books, from rants to gossip to dissertations on the worst flops ever, and a list of lyrics sounded like a yawn. Did I say I knew Sondheim? I should have known better.
Because not only does he list all his lyrics, including changed verses and discarded tunes, but he dissects his own work with the skill of a surgeon (or a show doctor, as it were). It’s fascinating to follow him along as he looks back on his earliest efforts, and with the wisdom gained through years of doing a job only a few people have actually done well, tells us exactly where he went wrong.
From miscalculations to compromises to plain crappy work, he explains the art of lyric writing. Consider this comment from a song cut from West Side Story: “Wrong: the heavy use of soft consonants like s and n, which make the Jets sound more like a hissing radiator than a gang on the warpath.” Or, despite Maria’s uneducated immigrant status, how he couldn’t resist showing off with “It’s alarming how charming I feel.”
Of course, as he moves along to Gypsy, Company, A Little Night Music, and beyond—in this book as well as the sequel, Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011)—the comments become more about why things work than why they don’t.
So since I’m a choreographer, not a lyricist, what does his book teach me? That all artists (even geniuses) have to take time to hone their craft; that no work (even on songs thrown away) is wasted; and that everyone can benefit from a little self-reflection now and again. Some nice advice from a man with no vice . . . or is it price? Mice? (Sigh.) —Karen White, Associate Editor
Art for a New Year
It’s a new year, always a good time to think about where we’ve been and where we’re going. As dancers and dance teachers, you’ve probably got creativity on your mind—and that leads to a question you might not ask yourself very often: why make art? And where does it happen—only on a stage, or in a classroom? Or does art really gain shape and meaning in places that are more metaphysical than physical, in our hearts and minds?
In one of this issue’s stories, “Poor Kids, Rich Prospects” (page 88), teacher Melanie Rios Glaser believes that the children and teens who study dance at The Wooden Floor are doing more than learning and performing dances. According to her, they’re making art. And that fact just might be what makes that program for low-income children the success it is. Art, perhaps more than anything else, has the power to transform.
Contemporary artist Richard Serra, known for his steel sculptures, talks about why he makes art in a video posted on YouTube by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which is hosting a retrospective exhibit of Serra’s drawings through January 16. He’s speaking of fine art, but his words hold true for the performing arts as well.
“I think one of the things art does [is] it asks you to perceive what it is on its own level. And it can come up and grab you at any time. It can be reassuring or it could be exactly the opposite—it could agitate you; it could be something you dismiss; it could be something that engages you; it could be something you recall; it could be something that leads to things that have nothing to do with what you’re looking at. So I think works of art engage, possibly, an internal memory bank that isn’t linear. And it can make you see the outside reality in that way also, like you probably see the world in ways that you would not have seen it if those artists had not exist[ed].”
Yes, art grabs us. It reassures, agitates, engages. It involves memory and perception. And it changes the way people see the world. Remember that as you bring the art of dance to your students and families this year. —Cheryl A. Ossola, Editor in Chief
Two Thumbs Up
The temptation was too much. The awe-inspiring Bolshoi in a spanking-new Sleeping Beauty starring the-most-famous-employee-in-the-world David Hallberg—every sequin, sauté, and squeaky pointe shoe beamed into a cinema near me. I had to be there.
So a friend and I set out to catch the latest Ballet in Cinema offering from Emerging Pictures, a company convinced that dance lovers will brave sticky floors and odd hours to see top companies doing top ballets. We were happy to—and so, I believe, were the seven other people in the theater.
Instead of the usual pre-show fare of previews and commercials we stared at a black screen, listening as the Bolshoi orchestra warmed up. (Definitely an improvement!) When the visual arrived, we were greeted by one of those amazing Europeans who speak 17 languages, chatting about Petipa. Onstage, dancers in layers of costumes and sweats milled about, ripping off quads and relaxing on pointe, waiting for the curtain to rise.
When it did, the audience in the Bolshoi Theater applauded. We in Theater 5 did not, and I must admit I felt vaguely traitorous. Still, it was a very different audience experience to be, at one moment, close enough to see the herald’s eyes narrow at Carabosse’s entrance, then suddenly, sitting somewhere in the third circle, in awe at the corps and their intricate patterns.
When intermission arrived, we were slightly perplexed. The Bolshoi patrons stretched their legs, but since our projectionist had obviously turned on the three-hour broadcast and gone out for a drink, we sat in the dark. For 30 minutes. But then it was Act II and time for David the Great to make his historic entrance.
I have to admit, it wasn’t too different from my usual trip to the ballet—I didn’t get a program and I dozed off during the Act III grand pas de deux. Yet I saw the Bolshoi, larger than life—and live. —Karen White, Associate Editor
Tremaine tells all on jazz, teaching, and his own high-stepping life
By Karen White
Joe Tremaine is the quintessential jazz dance pro. Growing up in the New Orleans area, immersed in what he calls “the best music on Earth,” Tremaine danced his way to New York City and Europe, cruised through TV jobs and Vegas shows, and eventually landed in Los Angeles, where he ran a “studio for the stars” for almost 30 years. He combined that teaching experience with his insider’s knowledge of show biz to create his Tremaine Dance Conventions and Competitions, now heading into its fourth decade. Through it all, Tremaine has been an ambassador for his own brand of heart-pumping, high-kicking, funky-and-fun style of jazz dance that still thrills his students and fans today. We caught up with him this fall, fresh off his appearance at the DanceLife Teacher Conference.
At the DLTC, the teachers couldn’t get enough of your jazz classes. What’s your secret?
I want everybody to have a great time, and I think number one is the music. Music is what jazz is all about. It’s the vernacular form of dance based on American popular music. My first trick is to have them dance to the hottest music possible. Get the class engaged in a few steps, then put the music on. The pacing of the class is extremely important, especially if you’re teaching younger kids. When I teach 6-, 7-, 8-year-olds, I’ll teach them an 8 or two 8s, and I’ll go, “Do you want to do it with music?” “Yes, yes, yes,” they’re screaming right away. As you progress from there, you can correct the technique and so forth.
How long have you been teaching?
I started teaching a little bit in high school. I didn’t want to, but I lived in the cotton fields of Louisiana. In that area I knew more about dance than most people, which is not saying a lot! People had to drive 35 miles to get to a dance studio, so they said, “You can teach us.”
Did you always gravitate toward jazz?
Jazz was always my favorite. I tapped at first, then modern jazz, as they called it, was beginning to evolve and I said, “Oh yeah, that’s what I want.” When I was 8 or 9, I was dancing to music on the radio in my dad’s grocery store, and I remember one of the workers said, “Man, you’re good! When you grow up, you’re gonna be an exotic dancer!” He didn’t know what an exotic dancer was, and neither did I. I felt it was a great compliment at the time.
But I had that influence, considered back then the street influence. It wasn’t hip-hop obviously, but it was called freestyling. I got many jobs because I could tap dance, I could do ballet, and I could out-freestyle anybody. I’d go into nightclubs and clear the floor dancing if I wanted to. But again, it’s all about the music.
You worked in the early days of TV, on The Jackie Gleason Show, The Jerry Lewis Show.
I moved from the cotton fields into New Orleans and worked in the French Quarter in legit shows, then moved to New York on a one-way bus ticket and lived at the Y. I started getting jobs. June Taylor hired me for a show called Mardi Gras starring Louis Armstrong and Joel Grey, and we played at Jones Beach in New York. After eight weeks June took me and three other guys to Miami to do The Jackie Gleason Show.
Most TV shows in those days were done live. How did that help you grow as a dancer?
It’s either do it or die. Today they call a season 12 shows—we did a 32-week season, and I did two years of live TV with many, many stars. It was the best training ground ever. There were no second takes—you really had to know what you were doing.
And I never stopped taking class, ever. We finished a show or walked out after rehearsal, where would we go? We would go to class. It was the best thing I ever did. You can never stop working on your instrument, on your body.
How did that all lead to teaching?
I was very lucky because I met so many stars on The Jerry Lewis Show—Jane Powell to Bobby Darin to everyone imaginable, and they would be like, “You’re really good—would you work for me?” That’s when I started choreographing. Eugene Loring had a school in Hollywood [Loring was director of the American School of Dance] and he said, “I want you to teach for me.” I opened my own dance center in 1971.
What was your studio like?
It was almost all adults. When I first opened I don’t think I let in anyone under 14, and then eventually dropped it to 12. But they were stars. Choreographers would take my class. Even Cyd Charisse took my class.
That was before people were going to gyms to get physically fit, so everybody would come to dance class. I’m not being egotistical, but my beginner and intro jazz classes would be huge—50, 60, 70, 100 people in a room that should only have 35 or 40. So I’d teach class harder and weed out the people who couldn’t keep up. Every secretary, every waiter, everybody out here wanted to be actors. That’s how my studio mushroomed—because they came to class.
How did you develop your style of jazz?
Every night I would go out dancing in the discos—not just to dance for my pleasure, but to hear the music, see all the street stuff. I’d say, “Boy—that could make a great step.” I would make it mine. I’d put it in a jazz form, and that’s how I developed my style.
What was best about running your own dance studio?
The freedom to do what I wanted to do, and do it the way I wanted to do it. I’m kind of strong-headed in the things I believe in. I like to teach fast and challenge people.
I don’t know that there was a worst part. I feel selfish sometimes that I am able to do what I want to do, having the time of my life and meeting incredible people. I really don’t know how to do anything else, and I don’t care how to do anything else. I just want to dance. I always wanted to dance.
“When I was 8 or 9, I was dancing to music on the radio in my dad’s grocery store, and I remember one of the workers said, ‘Man, you’re good! When you grow up, you’re gonna be an exotic dancer!’ He didn’t know what an exotic dancer was, and neither did I.”
How do you see jazz dance changing?
Jazz encompasses so much, from lyrical to boogie-woogie to basic jazz to Broadway-style jazz. The most popular form now is probably contemporary. Everyone wants to do contemporary, even the 6-year-olds. My one concern is they don’t know why they’re doing it. I don’t think kids who lack emotional maturity should be doing it in competition. But in studios across the country they’re all trying to emulate the TV dance shows to some degree.
Teachers say they’re confused about what jazz is and that at competitions, different styles end up in the same category.
Jazz is open-ended. If you’ve got five people, you’ve got five opinions. There’s basic old regular jazz, funky jazz, then all the others. Obviously there is a Broadway-style jazz, but what is the fine line between that and musical theater? It depends on the competition and the way the judges define those genres. I think teachers have to define for themselves what it is and enter their numbers accordingly.
So jazz is connected to popular music, and since the music has changed, the movement has changed.
Jazz has no boundaries. Everybody is still going to dance to “Hit the Road, Jack,” or “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” and that’s the old kind of jazz stuff. The great thing about jazz is that it’s an amalgamation. It’s a big stew. You throw in anything and stir it up with some good music and that’s jazz.
Is hip-hop jazz?
I said that jazz dance is an American form of dance which comes from the vernacular. It’s the same with hip-hop. It’s picking up on the trends in the music, and that’s street stuff and the kind of jazz I’ve always tried to incorporate. So I guess yes, hip-hop is a derivative of jazz.
Where is jazz going?
I think it’s going to continue just as it is with all kind of variations on the theme. The direction of popular music is what drives it. That’s what has driven it all along, all the way back to the cakewalk and the black bottom to jitterbug and boogie-woogie swing, Caribbean influences, everything. It’s so wonderful and it’s all interconnected.
What was your reaction to receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at the DanceLife Teacher Conference?
I almost fainted dead away. I had no idea I was getting an award. I was sitting there, enjoying everybody else’s performances, then suddenly it’s all about me, which was just astonishing. I was almost speechless, which I’m usually not. It was great to be honored in such a way by your peers. It can’t get any better than that.
Do you have any advice for studio teachers?
Keep training the kids to the best of your ability and know that we all get frustrated. Teachers say, “I haven’t taught in four years and I want to start again,” and my first reaction is that they should have never stopped. You can slow down; you can change your pace. You don’t have to teach four million classes a week. Teachers have to remember we’re training bodies, minds, and souls, not just bodies to do hop shuffle ball change or boogie-woogie. I always say dance training is life training. I would tell them not to stop—don’t give up.
Any last thoughts?
Anybody who moves to music or without music, if they consider it dancing, I think it’s fabulous. Everybody should be moving all the time. Get out of the damn chair and lift your legs and roll your head and snap your fingers and sway to the music. It’s so important to our lives.
Space, Emotion, Spirit, Mind
I like to broaden my horizons by doing things I haven’t experienced before. So when I saw a listing for a free dance-theater improvisation workshop, offered by San Francisco Bay Area choreographer and Mills College alumnus Bianca Brzezinski, I jumped on the opportunity.
Every Friday in May we met in a small black-box theater in San Francisco, where for two hours we did a series of improvisation exercises that inspired movement. Being a non-dancer, this workshop gave me the chance to explore dance without being caught up in the technique of movement. My imagination and my everyday gestures were viable means to exploring my body in space, my body moved by emotion, and my body confidently and securely connected to spirit and mind. I learned to trust my impulses and use “mistakes” as an occasion to do movement differently. I learned to deeply listen.
Speaking about doing improvisation, Brzezinski says, “My body leads me to discover things about myself through movement because motion expresses emotion, and sometimes it’s hard to confront your emotions face to face. Dance releases you.”
During our final workshop, I made a discovery when we did a free-writing exercise for a minute, read over each participant’s text, and then selected a phrase to create movement to. I chose, from another participant’s free-write, “Why my angel?” In my first round of a two-minute solo, I spoke the words and my movement was broad; however, I wasn’t focused because I was feeling self-conscious.
After receiving feedback from Brzezinski and participants, in the second round I internalized the phrase, making small, delicate, and boxed movements and facial expressions that articulated distress. I was communicating through my body a sadness ripe with creative energy. It was quite amazing!
Something beautiful and real came from me that Friday evening, something that made me know myself wholly as a dancer. —Arisa White, Editorial Assistant
Art Is Where You Feel It
When does dance become art? I think it’s when it touches your soul.
We’ve all experienced those moments when we stop dissecting the patterns of the corps or marveling at extensions or oohing and aahing over costumes, and find ourselves so immersed in the dance that we forget to breathe. I had one of those moments last spring at a nationals—yes, at one of those five-day, mind-numbing “Oh-God-not-another-lyrical-solo” dance marathons of double pirouettes and half tops.
The piece was a contemporary quintet from my daughter’s studio. Danced to “This Bitter Earth,” it was stunning and mature, with four male dancers, clad in ragged brown, and one female, in a red tunic and green leggings loosely reminiscent of a rose mentioned in the lyrics.
The movements of the men were very grounded: crouching, rolling, often pulling and yanking on the girl, keeping her in check. Even in the lifts, she never seemed to soar or fly but was manipulated through the air at the discretion of the men. The piece was gorgeous and haunting and I loved it—but I appreciated it on an aesthetic level. “It’s about how people hold each other down,” I thought.
I had seen the piece maybe a dozen times and certainly wasn’t expecting to find myself riveted at nationals. But I was. It was as if I suddenly understood something deep and hidden. This dance was not about a person or two’s petty actions but about prejudice and hatred, racism, greed, poverty, ignorance—all those things that keep us, individually and as a world society, from blossoming, keep us from reaching our full potential as humans. My daughter whispered at me in horror: “Mom, are you crying?”
Perhaps that’s not what the dancers thought. Perhaps the choreographer never had that in mind at all. But somehow the commitment of the dancers, the aching music, the care and precision of the choreography fused into something greater than mere movement. When does dance become art? Look for it this year at competitions, at performances, at rehearsals. And carry tissues. —Karen White, Associate Editor
Costume catalog modeling opportunities for dance students
By Karen White
When dance teachers pick up a costume catalog, it’s usually with a specific purpose in mind. They’re searching for a certain style, a particular price, a costume that is elegant or funky—or at least not the same color as last year’s. In the midst of this crazy quest, how many teachers stop and say, “Who are the kids modeling these costumes, and where do they come from?”
While a few are professional child actors/dancers with agents, others are everyday dance students from the studio right down the street, recruited and encouraged by studio owners who have close relationships with the costume companies.
Like Rita Ogden, owner of Ovations Dance Studio in Oaklyn, New Jersey. In her mid-teens Ogden started modeling for A Wish Come True, even making the cover in 2000. After opening her studio in 1999, Ogden began traveling with A Wish Come True to trade preview shows, where she not only modeled costumes but chatted with other studio owners about which songs or shoes would go well with the garments.
Eventually she “retired” from modeling, but A Wish Come True continued to call, asking her to help with posing models during photo shoots. “I would hear them say, ‘Oh, we really need more small child models,’ or ‘We really need a child with great extension,’ ” she says. “I’d say, ‘You know, I have students who fit the bill,’ and I’d send them in.”
Nowadays, the costume company will let Ogden know if it’s searching for children of a specific size or needs a redhead to balance out the blondes. She’ll make an announcement at the studio, measure and give out information to students who are interested, and encourage those who “have that talent, that shine in their eyes,” she says.
“Not every student who auditions gets in, but it’s easy because we’re so close,” says Ogden, whose studio is about a half-hour from A Wish Come True’s headquarters. “The kids love to see themselves in the catalog. It’s been a fun journey—fun to see kids I teach now modeling for them at the same age I was when I started.”
Renée Stojek, art director at A Wish Come True, says that while the company sends out email blasts to studios announcing its annual open audition, it has an ongoing relationship with Ovations and two other area studios.
It’s a relationship with tangible benefits for both. A Wish Come True gives the studios a $25 credit for every new student sent over that it decides to use, and she says one of the studios advertises “local casting calls for models” as a way of attracting new students.
In return, Stojek feels comfortable stopping at the studios on her way home to peek in, see who’s taking class, and perhaps measure a kid or two. “Doing model searches can be an uncomfortable thing,” she says. “If I walk up to a parent and say, ‘Your daughter is pretty—would she like to model?’ everyone’s first reaction is, ‘Get away from me.’ It’s nice to be introduced to parents by the studio owner who knows them.”
In turn, the owners know what she needs, Stojek says, which is much more than just a pretty face. They know how particular children behave in class. Modeling shoots can be long, tedious, tiresome days, and knowing a child’s temperament beforehand is a big plus.
A Wish Come True also picks the studio owners’ brains for all sorts of costume-related information. One of them names all the costumes, Stojek says, and shares her thoughts on styles or trends she thinks might be hot the next competition season. Owners also give Stojek the lowdown on studios that field strong competition teams—and, presumably, have students with picture-perfect technique—and Stojek then contacts those studios to see if they have any students interested in modeling.
If a studio expresses interest, she’ll then dispatch members of her crew to the studio to collect measurements, names, phone numbers, and photos. “The next day we look through everything and see if we’ve found anyone,” says Stojek, who uses about 50 models a year. While some companies reward models with dancewear, A Wish Come True models get paid depending on age and experience.
Ogden, who has been sketching designs of costumes since her teen years, enjoys posing models at shoots because she “gets a little behind-the-scenes view of costumes coming in,” she says. And those peeks have sometimes inspired her toward a particular recital theme or song choice. She also feels comfortable asking A Wish Come True to modify or design a costume per her specifications—such as creating a “cook’s costume” appropriate for an upside-down acro class.
The company is glad to oblige. “Having a good relationship with a studio owner is priceless,” Stojek says. “It’s someone you can call for an opinion. They’ll look at the costumes you’re starting to design, or see the kids in the costumes, and say, ‘Oh, that’s great. I’ll definitely use that.’ It’s informing you every step of the way.”
Studio owner input has had a huge impact on the Pumpers Dancewear catalog. Pumpers Dancewear president Terri Arment says the Wichita, Kansas, company used a modeling agency for its first catalog in 1991, but quickly realized it needed dancers, not models, in the costumes—and needed dance teachers, not commercial photographers, setting accurate poses. So Arment began working closely with two Wichita studio owners, Kacy Combs of Movement Authority and Diane Gans of Kansas Dance Academy, who work as posers or catalog “choreographers” and find student models for shoots.
Gans was glad to offer her expertise. “I like to see models who look like dancers. I don’t like it when I see pointe shoes and the ribbons are tied wrong, or their hair is messy,” Gans recalls.
When Arment needs models, Gans approaches only the students she thinks will fit. “I don’t say, ‘Who would like to do this?’ It would break too many hearts,” she says.
Combs feels that modeling gives his students another marketable skill they can use in their future dance careers. “Anything you know about or can add to your resume helps—plus anything that will help to pay the bills as a dancer,” he says.
It’s also a learning lesson. No matter how thrilled the girls are to be selected, they soon find out that modeling is tough work. “It wears them out. ‘Try this, try that, lift up, tummy in, shoulders back’—you’re constantly tweaking them through the whole process,” Gans says. “By the end of the day, they have huge, huge respect for models. It’s not as easy as it looks.”
“One girl was doing a jump in the photo, and when she saw the book said, ‘Is that me? I didn’t know I could do that.’ It builds their self-confidence.” —Rita Ogden, Ovations Dance Studio
Like Ogden, Combs has a lifelong interest in costume design, and the time he has spent at Pumpers photo shoots has given him a greater understanding of costume construction. “Terri has been great at showing me why this works because of this, and this doesn’t work because of that,” he says. “I see how it’s fitted, so when I design my own costumes I can do it properly.”
Arment lists the studio names in the back of the Pumpers catalog and shows her gratitude in lots of little ways—such as making up small, medium, and large samples of a particular costume, which Gans can use to size her dancers quickly and accurately.
“I think with a relationship like this, [a costume company] would be a bit more apt to help you out if you’re in a bind,” Combs says. “It’s very important for everyone in small business to look out for each other.”
Arment has been very pleased with the models the two owners have found. Her company works its photo shoots—last year, four shoots of two back-to-back days each in late June and early July—around the studios’ recitals and competitions. She also pays the owners for their time.
She admits that presenting a professional catalog would be impossible without the advice of the owners—and sometimes, the models themselves. “Some kids have been doing it for three or four years, and they have it down,” she says. “They’ll say, ‘Nah, that won’t look good on me,’ and they know. So we’ll switch it out with a kid with longer legs. Or they’ll say, ‘This would look cute with this sort of bottom,’ and so we’ll shoot it both ways. They’re all 13 to 17, and those are my customers. You have to listen to them.”
At Curtain Call Costumes, models are chosen from applications sent to the company’s York, Pennsylvania, design house by hopefuls from as far away as Florida and Texas. “We’ll take them from anywhere if they’re willing to travel,” says Donna Lynch, advertising coordinator for Curtain Call, which pays models for shoots but not traveling expenses.
Last year the company sent out a mailing to studios in its home state of Pennsylvania plus several neighboring states containing a flyer about modeling that owners could place on bulletin boards. Apparently many owners did, because applications to Curtain Call skyrocketed from about 350 a year to 980 in fall of 2010. “Even if studio owners took a ‘hands-off’ approach, they still let their kids know about it,” Lynch says. “We use about 100 models a year, so last year’s application process was a bit more competitive.”
Many of the Curtain Call models show up with Mom in tow—and more often than not, she’s a dance teacher or studio owner. Like the other companies, Curtain Call gets as much feedback from the teachers as possible, even asking for critiques on costumes still in development.
While Curtain Call doesn’t work exclusively with any studios, the company did approach one of its California customers last year when it needed models for a United Dance Merchants of America trade show. “The studio was really helpful. They sent out an email to parents, then sent me photos and measurements,” Lynch says. “We only used three or four models, so it’s not a huge amount. But they’re one of our biggest customers, so I felt it would be good to tap into that.”
Whether it’s for a catalog shoot or live retail show, Lynch is on the hunt for dancers with personality. “I’m looking for kids who are excited about dance, and it’s going to show in their photos,” she says.
At Ovations, 10 to 15 students each year show an interest in modeling, Ogden says, and A Wish Come True chooses two or three. Over the years, about 15 of her students have made the catalog (including one student who has modeled from age 4 to 12). A Wish Come True always places an ad showcasing the models in the studio’s yearbook.
Ogden assures the girls not chosen that they were probably between sizes (for modeling shoots, costumes must fit perfectly in all aspects) or the company needed a particular look, and urges them to reapply.
She’s seen the impact that making the costume catalog can have on some dancers. “One girl was doing a jump in the photo, and when she saw the book said, ‘Is that me? I didn’t know I could do that,’ ” Ogden says. “It builds their self-confidence. One of my students two years ago was on the cover. She also modeled at a preview show, and people were asking for her autograph.
“I still have my cover catalog,” she admits. “It was a Latin theme. I posed with maracas.”
Are We Having Fun Yet?
This summer at the DanceLife Teacher Conference I was reminded of a good practice that’s easy to forget: if you want to engage people—in just about anything—make it fun. I can thank Dance Studio Life editorial assistant Arisa White for tuning in to that aspect of human nature since the example I’m talking about was her idea.
At each DanceLife Teacher Conference we hold a seminar about the magazine, usually pegged as a brainstorming session. We like to get people’s input, find out what they like and don’t like about the magazine, and collect their ideas about what would make it better. But in the past we’ve found that people seemed reluctant to talk. Whether they had no ideas or felt intimidated about speaking their minds, I don’t know. But when Arisa and I talked about how to do it this time, she went into creative mode and proposed a no-miss solution. We’d make the session a game, a team version of Family Feud in which we’d challenge the participants to come up with three great ideas for various topics—recitals, competitions, preschool dance, and so on. It’d be fun, and what better way to get a bunch of dance teachers talking than to ask them to outdo each other?
It worked. The room was full of chatter, laughter, and friendly disputes, with people jumping on each other’s ideas and sharing their experiences. Whereas in the past we’d had to deal with painful silences, this time we didn’t have enough time to talk about the flow of ideas. And everyone left with a smile.
So thanks, Arisa, for reminding me that whatever your goal, the approach really matters. After all, in today’s stressed-out world, who doesn’t grab any excuse possible to laugh? —Cheryl Ossola, Editor in Chief
Jazzed About—Well, Jazz
Just wait a minute, teachers lamenting the demise of real jazz—don’t give up yet! Kids think jazz is creaky, uncool, and so last century, you say? I say, “Give them Joe Tremaine!”
We all know Joe, that pied piper of pivot turns who has never grown tired of teaching good old-fashioned jazz dancing. For years he’s been crisscrossing the country, leading workshops jammed with dancers in love with his lindys, and this summer’s DanceLife Teacher Conference was no different.
With an energy that literally burst through the wall, Joe stepped out on the dance floor, showing a trademark combination of strong arms and sultry struts. There was nothing contemporary about it—chassé, kick ball change, chaîné, hit—but the crowd couldn’t get enough. They clapped as they waited to “Cotton Eye Joe” across the floor, laughed as they got caught up in complicated combos. And these dancers were no Studio 54 leftovers, either—many were 20-somethings who have never worn a French-cut leg or fluorescent fringe. Still, they pumped out Cuban hips and sugarfoots, shook their jazz hands, and begged for more.
Watching, I said, “Wow.” Why have so many teachers apparently forgotten what Joe knows so well? Jazz isn’t dead—and it isn’t out of style. It’s clean, dynamic dancing, done in unison to infectious music. It’s stylized steps, kicks and digs, kimbos and camels, cranked out at such a speed it makes your heart race. It’s energy, energy, energy, taught by a teacher who yells over the music and who remembers what it feels like to be 13 and crazy about calypsos.
So, you teachers out there who have written off jazz, take up those opposition arms! Give your students the jazz you loved, and when they stop panting, they’ll thank you. —Karen White, Associate Editor
They lug props, climb ladders, and save the day. And once a year, the men of ODD even dance.
By Karen White
The Ovations Dancing Dads—otherwise known as ODD—have an official motto: “Surrender your dignity.” Or, as Dancing Dad Craig Roncace likes to say, “We’re not the best at what we do; we’re the only ones who do what we do.” From a group of 14 fathers who performed in Ovations Dance Studio’s first recital in 2000, the Dancing Dads have grown into a 30-member powerhouse.
Ovations owner and director Rita Ogden would surely disagree about the men not being the best. Not only do they steal the show year after year with their over-the-top comedy routines, but they run the front-of-house, sell refreshments, provide security, set props, and step in when the inevitable recital disaster strikes.
Take, for example, that one Friday night recital when the entire town of Collingswood, New Jersey, lost power. With an impatient audience literally sweating out a two-hour delay in the unair-conditioned Collingswood Scottish Rite Theatre, Ogden had her hands full keeping her students calm backstage. Without any instruction from her, the Dads took control, ushering the audience outside and then lugging out cases of water and pretzels to help placate the crowd. It worked. Although the show was eventually cancelled and rescheduled, what Ogden says “could have been a riot” was instead merely an inconvenience.
And not only that, she adds, but the school’s scholarship fund—supported by sales of all that water and pretzels—was never bigger.
During another recital, the curtain jammed as it was opening. Before Ogden could even react, two Dads were rolling a ladder onto the stage, with another already climbing up the rungs. In 30 seconds the curtain was unhooked and the show went on.
“It’s just that sense of security, knowing that the group is there,” Ogden says of her Dancing Dads.
The Dads developed into such an important aspect of the Ovations’ recitals purely by chance. Ogden, who had been a student and teacher at a studio with a father-daughter recital dance tradition, wanted something similar for her school, which moved in May from Westmont, New Jersey, to a new location in Oaklyn, New Jersey. “But I thought, how much fun would it be if the dads had their own routine and it was a secret?” she says.
So that first year she approached some dads, who told their wives they had signed up to “do backstage stuff,” but instead were meeting clandestinely for an hour on Friday nights to learn a routine.
When they finally took to the stage at the “Around the World”-themed recital, clad as French cancan dancers (with skirts cut to fit under beer bellies and flashing boxers that read “Hi Mom” over their fishnet stockings), they were an instant hit.
Today, while the song or concept that the dads plan to use each year is always kept hush-hush, the routine is the most anticipated part of the recital. Ogden says she schedules it near the end of the show: it keeps her audience in their seats. No one will leave without seeing the Dads.
Dancing Dad Tom Lorenz, 48, recalls the year the group’s number was a tribute to Irish dance, complete with one short, stout, redheaded dad as “Lord of the Dance.” “When the curtain opened, the roar from the crowd was absolutely unreal,” he says. “It wasn’t just applause or laughter—it was a true roar like I have never heard before. We worked very, very long and hard on that routine, so getting that kind of reaction was enormously gratifying.”
Over the years their camp/dance numbers have never disappointed, from male construction workers whistling “Brick House” to “females” in pink hardhats, to “Fat Bottomed Girls,” to this spring’s foam-sword-wielding “Men in Tights.”
Ogden, a musical-theater fanatic, says it wasn’t hard to convince the Dads to get silly for the sake of their art. Women’s roles are especially prized—during a “TV Theme Show” recital, when the Dads paid tribute to Gilligan’s Island, everyone wanted to be Ginger or Mrs. Howell.
While some fathers, like 54-year-old Joe Duva, 43-year-old Evan Horn, and 42-year-old Roncace, joined the group at the insistence of their children, John Kingham, 51, joined after seeing the Dads’ synchronized swimming routine at his child’s first recital. For him, the hardest part is remembering the steps. “I think Rita purposely gives us a week or two off before the show to make sure we forget our steps,” he says.
But all that struggling has opened Kingham’s eyes to the work his three daughters put into their dance classes. “Realizing how many different dances my daughters are doing has given me an appreciation for their dancing,” he says.
Lorenz agrees. “I hadn’t ever thought about what it takes to learn a piece, what the rehearsals are like, or what challenges there are creatively and logistically,” he says. “It has been a tremendous eye-opener, and I find myself enjoying watching others dance far more than I ever had before.”
Ogden believes the Dads have also helped to foster a stronger family feeling at her studio. Dads who never would have known each other—with daughters in various age groups or who live in different towns—rehearse together one hour a week for three months each spring. In the process, they become friends.
“We may not have a lot in common, but we do have the recital, and the practice leading up to it, and the pride in our kids,” Duva says. “That makes it a good time.”
The Dads, in turn, introduce their wives to each other. They congratulate each other’s children after the show, Ogden says, and set a good example (through both their onstage performances and backstage labor) for the school’s dozen male students. She knows her students are excited about their parents’ participation as well—for example, she’ll sometimes hear a dancer telling others how her dad works the spotlight or dances in the show.
“What more can you ask for than parents who are involved with their children and understand and have an appreciation and respect for what their children do?” Ogden says. “It changes the whole atmosphere of the studio.”
Perhaps the Dads’ biggest contribution, though, is keeping the recitals running smoothly. Ogden won’t allow mothers to help backstage, so she relies on her senior students and returning alumni to staff the dressing rooms and backstage area. Her mother and an office staffer sell tickets and merchandise. A few volunteers handle the 50/50 raffle, and one of Ogden’s uncles calls the show.
The Dads do everything else, from selling refreshments to taking tickets, securing the house and backstage, running spotlights, directing lost parents to the dressing rooms, setting up large props or acro mats, and restocking water and ice. They load in the show, roll and tape down the marley floor, then re-roll it and load out when the recital is over. They coordinate their recital jobs themselves, taking turns so that each man can watch his own child’s dance numbers.
It all happened naturally, Ogden says. At the first recital, as the Dads waited to do their number, several of them offered to fetch water and help out with a large prop. When the next recital rolled around, one Dad sent around a sign-up sheet—and a recital crew was born.
“We’re not the best at what we do; we’re the only ones who do what we do.” —Dancing Dad Craig Roncace
“I’ve never had to worry about whether someone will be there for props,” Ogden says. “The [men] take the initiative. At dress rehearsal, they check the batteries in the ushers’ flashlights. They get the ice. There’s always new blood coming in, and they teach the new ones. I never have to leave backstage, and I know my front-of-house is fine. It’s such a relief.”
Roncace says helping out at the recital is a “benefit” of being a Dancing Dad. “Selling the pretzels and water is busy, but fast-paced fun,” he says. “I love seeing the kids all dressed up and excited about their big night. It’s all a good time.”
Ogden is aware of what mothers might think of men backstage, so she keeps only two or three Dads backstage during the show—and they are always on stage left, near the boys’ dressing room, nowhere near the girls’ dressing room or the stage right quick-change area. The Dads have their own dressing room—an office space in the front-of-house—where they can hang out during the show and change from their official Dancing Dads “Staff” T-shirts into their costumes.
Ogden thanks the men for all their hard work by throwing a post-recital barbecue. Like regular students, Dads even get “trophies” (bobble-head ballerinas) after 5 or 10 years of involvement. “When they get their awards, many feel the need to give a little speech. I tell you, the personalities!” she laughs. “We have doctors, businessmen. It’s a release, I guess—they can get their goofiness out.”
In turn, the men take up a collection each year and purchase a massage gift certificate or Home Depot gift card for Ogden, who doesn’t charge them for rehearsal time. She proudly wears one of their gifts—a Dancing Dads T-shirt with “Coach” printed on the back.
These feelings of camaraderie and overall sense of fun extend far past the footlights. The Dancing Dads’ handbook (they wrote it themselves) spells out rules for participation—such as every member must help at the recital—but also tongue-in-cheek regulations such as “Those who miss rehearsals are subject to be awarded roles that those present refuse to accept—such as an animal’s rear end.”
When one Dancing Dad’s daughter left the studio to attend college, his insistence at remaining in the group led to another rule: “Once a Dancing Dad, always a Dancing Dad.” Another man, whose daughter left dance for sports, has also stayed on board.
Ogden’s own father, Fred Ogden, 60, recognized that this group was something special years ago. He had been a part of a dancing dads group at the studio where his daughter took lessons, but admits that he always found recitals painful.
When the Ovations Dancing Dads group was about 4 years old, he overheard some of the men—several didn’t yet realize he was the owner’s father—praising the studio. “What really got me is how important the dance studio was to them personally as dads, and to their families,” he says. “What an eye-opener. From that point on, I looked at the studio through very different eyes. I also began to understand and enjoy the recitals.”
While the Dancing Dads have found friends, fun, and fame, some have also found that dancing is not as easy as it looks. Roncace remembers one routine when the Dads shared the stage with their kids. “They learned their dance routine in about three minutes. It took us three months,” he says.
Or as Joe Smith puts it: “I could practice until I’m 150 years old and my dancing would remain the same. It’s like my golf game.”
Want to see the Ovations Dancing Dads in action? They’re on YouTube!
Just say yes to a studio seamstress
By Hedy Perna and Karen White
Alterations on Demand
I attend several recitals per year. I know how much effort every studio owner puts into the details of the show, whether it’s a big extravaganza or a concert-setting performance. You agonize over the selection of music, costumes, and scenery. Everything should go smoothly, especially since you planned everything so carefully.
Yet, while watching your show, I notice that one of the lovely dancers in your 8-year-old ballet group is wearing a tutu that’s much longer than the others. Since I’m a studio owner too, I know what happened: the student needed a size Large Child costume, and tutus run Small/Medium Child and Large Child/Small Adult. So this 8-year-old is wearing an adult costume that might have fit perfectly at the hips and waist but is definitely too long.
This detail should be addressed far in advance of a stage performance, when costumes are distributed. With a little extra attention when giving out the costumes—and the assistance of a studio seamstress—you’ll have one less thing to worry about during crunch time.
At my school, Perna Dance Center, we tell parents far in advance that they will be responsible for minor alterations such as attaching straps and altering hems, and that during the distribution of costumes we will give them detailed instructions.
We require each student to try on all costumes before taking them home. At this initial fitting, we make notes on what needs to be adjusted on each costume. Is it as simple as sewing a strap straight back, or do hems need to be adjusted? If it is something that I feel the studio should take care of, I’ll ask our studio seamstress to come to the class to do an all-at-once fitting, and I’ll take care of the costs.
The families of students whose costumes require minor adjustments are responsible for making them; they can do the alterations themselves or use the services of our studio seamstress. Since many parents either do not know how to sew or don’t have the time to do the alterations, I offer a courtesy service by having a studio seamstress come in for private appointments. I do this twice, once before picture day and again before the recital. A master appointment list with important information such as the number of costumes to be fitted and the student/parent’s phone number (to reach latecomers and to notify them when costumes are ready for pickup) guarantees a tight schedule.
Our studio seamstress, whom I discovered 20 years ago when her son took dance classes, has a successful alterations business. Her rates are very reasonable; for example, $15 for hems and $10 to sew straps. Parents are grateful for her quick turnaround and high-quality work. Her busiest time of year is the wedding/prom/recital season, so if she gets too busy, she’ll call in extra help. I also use two other seamstresses as needed. One of them, a talented designer, is a receptionist at my school, and the other is my mother, who was a professional seamstress. She makes the hula and specialty costumes that I design.
Before the alterations day, we prepare a labeled bag for each scheduled appointment. Appointments are scheduled for every five minutes. Students arrive carrying their costume and are dressed in leotards and tights, with hair pulled back and with the shoes needed for the costume. (Tights and dance belts are recommended for boys.) While the seamstress works, a studio staff member documents what needs to be done on a separate sheet of paper. After the fitting, we put the costume into the labeled bag along with the paper detailing the needed alterations, and then place the bag in the “seamstress box.” This box is a permanent fixture in the office; it’s for anything that needs to be worked on. For example, if a costume I ordered arrives with its trim coming off, someone on staff will put a note on it, put it in a labeled bag, and drop it into the seamstress box for repair. The student doesn’t need to be fitted since it’s a minor repair, and fixing it is quicker than returning it to the costume company.
Turnaround time is usually a week; the costumes come back to us in their labeled bags with a bill taped to the outside. The seamstress gives us a total for the fitting session, which we pay with a studio check. We then collect the alterations fees from the parents as they pick up the costumes.
This system ensures that all the students feel like their costume has been especially made to fit them and they can go onstage with confidence. That said, don’t underestimate the power of a glue gun or quick-drying fabric tack. One year we needed a red tutu for a preschooler in the second half of the show, so we made it from a large piece of chiffon that was used as a prop in the first half of the show. Amazing. —HP
Have Mother, Have Seamstress
When Andrea Polyak’s students from 8* Count Dance are looking good onstage at recitals or competitions, they have Polyak’s mother to thank.
Sandy Schmidt creates about 90 percent of the costumes used by the Arizona studio by hand—using her huge collection of patterns or working off an idea sketched by Polyak. It’s what she’s done for years—Polyak remembers her mom sewing costumes for herself, her sister, and other dance students when she was a little girl, trading sewing skills for breaks on tuition. When Polyak opened her studio in the Trailhead Clubhouse of the Las Sendas Community in Mesa 10 years ago, Schmidt again stepped forward to offer her help.
“If I can’t find what I’m looking for in the costume books, I’ll describe it to Mom. It’s like she’s in my mind, because it comes out exactly as I want it,” says Polyak, who opened a second location in Queens Creek two and a half years ago, for a total student enrollment that runs between 130 to 150 students. “I just tell her what I’m looking for and she’ll get it done.”
With two recitals a year (December and May) and competition season in between, Polyak starts thinking about dances—and their costumes—when classes start in September. She discusses her ideas with her mother, who chimes in with her own thoughts about how much work a costume might be or what it might cost. Then Schmidt spends 8 to 12 weeks putting the costumes together, finishing just before Thanksgiving to allow time for alterations before the December show.
After the December rush is complete, Schmidt offers her sewing talents to other area studios that hire her to make original pieces or do alterations in preparation for their spring recitals.
If Polyak does order costumes from a company, she might call on her mother to finish a hem or add some nude-colored material to turn a two-piece into a one-piece. She’s also able to take advantage of some costume companies’ clearance offerings because if she needs smaller sizes than are available, her mother can alter the too-large outfits to fit.
Sometimes a particular piece of cloth will inspire Polyak or Schmidt, such as a unique red, white, and blue fabric that Polyak wanted for a dance for her 4- and 5-year-olds, set to a song from Yankee Doodle Mickey. Her mother made sundresses with big ribbon bows on the shoulders for the girls, who loved the costume, says Polyak. “They called it their ‘Popsicle dress’ because it looked just like that red, white, and blue Popsicle.”
Since she’s particular about putting children in only age-appropriate outfits, Polyak loves that with custom designs she has full control over bust lines and skirt lengths. Schmidt has been collecting patterns for years, Polyak says, and she can create period costumes, such as a picture-perfect Lucille Ball–type polka-dot dress, as well as contemporary styles.
Schmidt isn’t the only creative mother at Polyak’s studio. One woman specializes in sewing tutus, she says, while another creates bows and headpieces. Polyak pays the women for their work, as she does Schmidt, who estimates prices for each costume based on expected hours of labor and materials. Generally, Schmidt’s handmade costumes run between $50 and $150, although she can whip out leotards for as little as $5 each.
Polyak sets a purchase price for all class costumes, and she tries to keep within that budget for both company-purchased and handmade costumes. If a solo costume might cost a bit more because of material or extra touches such as rhinestones, she discusses the price with the parent before any work is started.
Because once the cloth is cut, there’s no turning back. That’s why Schmidt often makes a sample costume out of cheap material to check for size and get her daughter’s approval. “It’s important to have that sample before Mom makes 20 and I don’t like any of them,” Polyak says.
Polyak likes the fact that when her girls are at competition, their costumes are unique. And for her students, getting a homemade costume is a treat, not a disappointment. “I’ll tell them my mom is going to be making the costumes and they get all excited,” she says. “They totally love it.” —KW
Garment District Grab Bag
When it’s time for costumes at The Dance Club, it’s time for Allison Thornton and Sheryl Dowling to go shopping.
Twice a year, the co-owners of the studio in Orem, Utah, head to the Los Angeles Fashion District, where they search through 100 blocks of shops for clothing items that could work well as costumes. They use the studio’s retail store’s wholesale license to shop for the best buys possible. Back at the studio, the owners add accessories, seamstresses make alterations, and voilà! They have a year’s worth of customized costumes for their 300 dancers.
“We like to have things that nobody else has,” Thornton says. “We use sparkly little party dresses, skirts and vests, or little tuxedo jackets. A lot of the contemporary styles lean toward something that is organic and raw—those ‘drapey’ tops work really well.”
The Dance Club—where Thornton grew up training under founder and studio director Dowling—has always followed its own style with costumes. Thornton estimates that the 10 percent or so of costumes the studio purchases annually from costume companies today is far greater than in her student days when almost everything was custom-made by an in-house seamstress.
Today, only about 10 or 20 percent of their costumes are fully custom-made, and that’s only for items that would be impossible to find, such as a hot pink tuxedo suit with only one arm and one leg requested by one teacher for a class. “We knew there was no way we would find that,” Thornton says.
The co-owners and Kirra Cook, a teacher with an eye for fashion, head to L.A. with a list of costume ideas and students’ sizes and measurements. Not satisfied with what’s available in the children’s stores, they often buy adult sizes and alter them to fit smaller dancers. Because they’re shopping wholesale, most of the garments come in “packs,” such as two smalls, two mediums, and two larges. “It comes in handy to have a few extras of each piece. If we need to exchange out sizes or a zipper breaks, we have a backup,” Thornton says.
Everything they buy in L.A. (an average of 300 costumes on each trip) is shipped to the studio. For each class, the last 15 minutes of a lesson is set aside for a fitting. The studio’s current in-house seamstress (who also works in the retail store) or the former one (who now has her own sewing shop) makes note of alterations.
If a costume requires a lot of work, the seamstress might tackle only one at first, which is again tried on a dancer for approval before the entire class has a final fitting. “This allows us to make sure they all look the same, and that each costume lives up to the standard of what we want our girls to look like onstage,” Thornton says.
Also helping out is a studio mother who trades alteration work for tuition breaks. Since the studio requires solo, duo, and trio students to find their own costumes (although Thornton and Dowling will make suggestions), the three seamstresses are available to assist with alterations on those costumes as well and are paid directly by the students’ parents.
The cost to the student for a basic costume (with all accessories and alteration charges included) generally runs $65 to $80, with a fancier costume for advanced dancers running about $80 to $100. Those prices for the customized costumes, Thornton estimates, run about $20 to $25 cheaper than purchased costumes. “And that includes the cost of our travel, bringing it back, and altering it,” she says.
Thornton admits that The Dance Club’s costume system is labor intensive. Along with all the fittings and alterations, the studio has to collect costume deposits in advance to pay for the purchases, and the days spent in the garment district are exhausting. “We find it very helpful to have the three of us there,” she says. “That way when one of us is exhausted and on the verge of a mental breakdown the other two can keep us all going!” —KW
A little TLC yields big results when recruiting and training
By Karen White
Volunteers are the many hands that keep a recital rolling. They make buns, soothe babies, pull curtains, sell chips, and rip tickets. Many complete these menial but important tasks with care and precision (or at least give it the old college try), but what about the dressing-room mom who fusses over her own child’s appearance but ignores a 3-year-old who’s playing Picasso with a lipstick?
There’s got to be a way to tame and train these once-a-year workers. So we spoke to five studio owners who have their volunteers well under control. Each has a different yet effective strategy. Curtain up!
Skip the parents
Linda Twiss Gioscia of Performance Dance Center in Weymouth, Massachusetts, has followed a strict “no parent volunteers” recital policy during her 14 years in business. “I think parents should be your customers. They have paid me good money over the year, and they have paid for a recital ticket, so they should sit and enjoy the show,” she says.
For most of her jobs she relies on alumni, enticing them with a stipend and the promise of an alumni dance in the recital. Three of them supervise students in the school cafeteria that serves as a dressing room, with one specifically in charge of “quality control”—making sure all students are wearing the right tights or have their headpieces on. Another is a runner, bringing classes to the backstage area. Boyfriends of the alumni provide backstage security. Office staffers, plus a few relatives, handle the front-of-house duties.
Gioscia is able to run her shows with this scant crew—about a dozen last year—because one of the biggest volunteer headaches—who watches the “babies”—is a non-issue. Borrowing from an idea popular in the early days of dance studios, Gioscia sits the toddlers and preschoolers onstage on benches. When it’s time for them to dance, Gioscia’s oldest students lead the little ones downstage. After the dance, the older students return and lead the little dancers offstage for a change of shoes (if they have a second number) or to an area where the moms are waiting. The tykes are then free to go home or watch the rest of the show from the audience.
The system has several advantages, she says. It eliminates stress for the youngsters since there’s no “scary, dark backstage” or boring time in a dressing room. Parents can see their little ones throughout the whole show, and the older kids love having the responsibility. “I do think this cuts down on needing volunteers and the chaos backstage,” Gioscia says.
While it might seem like a distraction to have dozens of little dancers sitting onstage while other dancers are performing, it works for Gioscia—who never needs to beg for volunteers. “The babies really watch the dancing,” she says. “The big kids love it. My preteens keep saying, ‘When do we get to help the little kids?’ ”
To help the older students learn how to work up a rapport with their assigned dancers, she sets aside time in their classes to discuss the proper way to talk to and handle a young child. She also has the older students visit the younger kids in a class and gives both older and younger students a photo of their assigned partner.
When you have seven studios in the San Francisco Bay and Orange County areas of California with more than 2,500 students, and put on 23 recitals—plus three full-length Nutcrackers each year—finding, training, and organizing volunteers could be a major headache. Not for Paul Henderson, general manager at Tiffany’s Dance Academy, Inc., who estimates that the studio needed about 600 volunteers in the past year.
“We have this problem all figured out,” says Henderson. First, the studio advertises through banners, newsletters, and emails that volunteers are needed. Anyone interested can visit the studio website to see a complete listing of jobs, including responsibilities, dates needed, and how much time the job requires. The volunteers sign up online and follow-up communication is done via email.
Along with standard jobs such as flower wrappers, ushers, ticket takers, and concession setup or sales, Henderson also encourages people to “volunteer” by donating concessions supplies, such as cases of water or snacks, which the studio sells to support its nonprofit dance company, Bay Area Dance.
Backstage moms are still rounded up the old-fashioned way, through a signup sheet in the studio lobby. These moms are generally in weekly contact with the classroom teachers, he says, who inform them in person about what the job entails.
But for everyone else, he says, the studio’s software tracks the volunteers just as it would, for example, new students enrolling in a tap class. This eliminates much of the work of chasing down bodies, collecting volunteer forms, and coordinating schedules.
Not only is the system convenient and easy for parents, but Henderson creates excitement and generates interest by offering volunteers the chance to purchase their show tickets (and get the best seats) a day before they go on sale to the general public. Once they sign up, they receive a pre-sale password—sent in an email, of course.
Make it fun
Beth Wheeler admits she had an “Aha!” moment shortly after opening her school, A Dancer’s Dream in Marblehead, Massachusetts. One day, when Wheeler was overwhelmed with paperwork, a mom passed by and said, “You know, a lot of us would help if you just asked.”
“Rarely do folks say no. People like to feel they are a part of something. I make it fun. We have a blast, and we get the job done.” —Beth Wheeler, A Dancer’s Dream
So now, when she needs rhinestone gluers or crew dads or “Scenery Saturdays” workers, Wheeler asks for help. “Rarely do folks say no,” she says. “People like to feel they are a part of something. I make it fun. We have a blast, and we get the job done.”
Many of her students’ moms know what working the recital is all about because Wheeler requires all dancers younger than 4 to have a female chaperone backstage with them at all times. “There’s this reputation that backstage is crazy. This lets them see that backstage isn’t horrible—it’s fun,” Wheeler says. “They all see that there is lots to do back there, and the moms see why we need their help.”
For her primary-level classes, ages 4 and up, Wheeler asks for two or three volunteers and generally has to work from a “first come, first served” basis because of demand. (The volunteer form is printed on the recital ticket order form, so eager volunteers rush in their ticket orders, she says.) The fact that her four shows are short—90 minutes each, which means volunteers for each show are in and out in less than two hours—is another selling point.
She also puts great effort into saying thank you. All volunteers are listed in the program, and Wheeler calls all workers onstage at the end of every recital for some public praise. (She started this tradition after one teacher, incensed that Wheeler forgot the faculty bows at a recital, quit.) Volunteers who work all four shows (generally about 30 out of her 100-plus volunteers) also get a gift—something related to the theme, such as a roll-up beach blanket for a seafaring recital.
“It costs me a few hundred bucks, which may seem expensive to some, but it’s a thank-you token so they know they were appreciated,” she says.
Ask your alumni
Who knows how a recital is supposed to run? Former students do. Shannon O’Brien Marshall uses crews of 12 to 15 alumni per show to keep her two Shannon O’Brien School of Dance recitals running smoothly. “Our show is like a huge annual reunion,” she says. “Former students know how our shows work; they know the current dancers and the families by name; and they take pride in putting on a successful show.”
Her Seekonk, Massachusetts, studio holds its shows at Rhode Island College, where the theater staff handles the show’s technical aspects such as lights, sound, and curtain. The remaining jobs are filled with alumni under the direction of Marshall and her sister and co-owner, Julie White. “We’re already comfortable with each other, so you can say, ‘Hey, you need to get that!’ and skip the politeness,” Marshall says of her crew of former students. “They know how to pin a costume and do hair. It really does work.”
Before each recital weekend, the alumni crew and directors plan the show over dinner and lots of laughter. Each volunteer is given a binder of recital information and urged to jot down problems or issues encountered during the upcoming show. All the binder notes from the previous year are discussed and solutions found.
“When the recital begins, we’ve already done the social thing and we’re ready to work,” she says. “We take their feedback and make it happen. It makes them feel positive and invested in the recital.”
A few weeks after the two shows, everyone meets again at a staff member’s house for a potluck party. The volunteers—who generally don’t get to see much of the show—watch the recital video and everyone has a great time.
The directors work hard to build a sense of teamwork and fun among the alumni volunteers, some who have returned for years to help. “We have some volunteers who are approaching 30. Once they start to have babies I feel bad asking them to leave their families for the weekend, so they usually pass the sword on to somebody else,” she says. “It’s so much fun because you’re with people you enjoy being with, and we all love dance.”
Organization and communication
After 14 recitals at Tonawanda Dance Arts in Tonawanda, New York, Melanie Boniszewski knows that organization is the name of the game. About 10 days before her recital, Boniszewski sends a detailed letter to her volunteers that includes the show dates, which recital they are scheduled to work, where they will be stationed, and what their job responsibilities are. She also includes her cell number and email address and urges them to ask questions.
At the theater, she makes the rounds of the volunteers before the show starts, again asking if they know what they are supposed to do. Two close relatives who have served for years as “volunteer director” and “executive volunteer” are on hand to supervise the crew, which, for the studio’s three shows, totals about 35 people.
In case there are still any questions, Boniszewski posts a master sheet backstage that lists all the volunteers’ names and their assignments for each show.
“We’ve gotten into a system that runs smoothly,” she says. “Every year we add different things for the volunteers to try, just to make the show run smoother and so they’ll know what’s going on.”
One recent change was the addition of official volunteer T-shirts. Before, parents who were unfamiliar with the volunteers were leery of leaving their children at the dressing area. Boniszewski also makes sure the volunteers understand the studio’s recital policies and the reasoning behind each one—for example, the rule that “no parents other than official volunteers are allowed backstage” is for security purposes. “The volunteers can explain things to our parents,” she says.
Although she says it’s good to have repeat volunteers, what’s more important is clear communication. “I like to write things down because then there are no questions,” she says. “You have to make sure all the volunteers know exactly what’s expected of them.”
Competing: It’s All About Connecting
In what’s become an annual feature in our September competitions and conventions issue, a Q&A with competition directors (see page 70), we included a question that brought some thought-provoking responses. We asked the directors to tell us an inspirational story about a student or dance team at one of their competition events. The answers ranged from stories about teachers battling degenerative illness or helping each other deal with the unexpected, to memories of young dancers with Down syndrome or cancer performing their hearts out, to excitement about kids who’ve been plucked from the competition stage and plopped into a role in a Broadway show or other kinds of performing jobs. And then there are the two kids who have more determination and perseverance than most of us can dream of, who struggled for 11 years to achieve their goal: a first-place top score.
I suspect that anyone who participates in competitions has a similar story to tell. To me, these anecdotes represent the best of the good about competing. Sure, there are other benefits: the stage experience, the camaraderie, the fun, the learning to cope with disappointment (or success). But really, what it’s all about—what anything in life is all about—is people connecting and touching one another in a profound way.
Before your next competition, why not sit your students down and share a few of the stories in the Q&A with them? You may find that they go to that event with their eyes wide open, looking for students and teachers who show by example what’s important in life. —Cheryl Ossola, Editor in Chief
Confessions of a Dance Mom
I’m a dance mom. In some circles, that’s a pretty ugly title, like “ax murderer” or “crazy cat lady.” But it’s true, and since they say admitting your weakness is the first step to a new you, there it is.
I wasn’t always a dance mom. A long time ago I was just a dancer, taking two hours a week of ballet and jazz, with maybe a half-hour of tap if my own dance mom felt especially flush with cash (which wasn’t often). In those days, dance moms were fairly meek individuals who never said “boo” about costume color or recital ticket cost and considered dance class just another activity, like Brownies or molding and painting at the local rec hall.
I grew up, got married, and then for many years was both a dance mom and a dance teacher, a kind of two-headed creature whom other dance moms don’t totally trust and neglect to include in things like tag days and bake sales. My hardest year was the one when I taught several of my daughter’s classes. Determined not to pick a nicer jazz costume for her class than I did for my others, I hemmed and hawed until the 11th hour, then settled on a pretty miserable choice. I had to avoid the other dance moms for months.
Now my daughter and I have “divorced”—I teach at two studios and she takes class at a third. What I’ve discovered is that being a calm, quiet, respectable “dance mother” instead of a dance mom is no pas de bourrée in the park. I try—I really do. I drive. I write checks. I remember to remember the false eyelashes. I resist the urge to go backstage and make sure everyone has bobby pins in their headpieces. (OK, I’m failing miserably at that. But one step at a time.)
Unlike soccer moms, who at least are considered a major political force, dance moms are pretty far down on the respect ladder. (I think it’s because of the makeup—not ours, the kids’.) Sure, there is always a crab in the ocean, but most dance moms have never heard of Mama Rose, are full of unconditional support and love, and think their dance studio is the greatest place in the world.
Still, being a dance mom is nothing to brag about in your obit. And I am making progress—I’ve stopped bugging my daughter about joining me for yoga and I only go on the studio’s Facebook page twice a day. All right, maybe three times. “Hello, my name is Karen, and I am a dance mom . . .” —Karen White, Associate Editor
Taste, Mix, and Enjoy
Late summer brings a sense of renewal as dance schools everywhere gear up for the next academic year of developing young artists. In the weeks before I sat down to write this, I saw a lot of dance: two programs by the Royal Danish Ballet, in the company’s first visit to the Bay Area in 50 years (kudos to Cal Performances for hosting the troupe); the San Francisco Ballet School Student Showcase; and one evening of the multi-weekend San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. Looking at all this dance as a whole, I’m struck by the wealth and diversity of the dance offerings teachers have at their fingertips.
But there’s more. That diversity consists not only of discrete stylistic variations; today we take a more blended approach to choreography. So along with the Royal Danish’s well-defined repertoire, both old (Bournonville’s Romantic-era La Sylphide and Flemming Flindt’s chilling The Lesson, from 1964) and new (Jorma Elo’s 2008 Lost on Slow and Johan Kobborg’s 2011 Alumnus), there was a time-line mashup, Bournonville Variations. Created in 2010 from traditional repertoire from the Bournonville school, arranged and staged by Thomas Lund and RDB artistic director Nikolaj Hübbe, it puts a contemporary spin on Bournonville’s fleeting, dynamic steps.
At the SF Ballet School Student Showcase, advanced students performed two ballets by artistic director Helgi Tomasson (Beads of Memory and excerpts from Ballet d’Isoline), plus new works by SFBS teacher Parrish Maynard (Promenade) and SFB corps de ballet dancer Myles Thatcher (Timepiece). In just four pieces the students faced the challenge of a wide range of styles, from Tomasson’s neoclassicism to Maynard’s formal-yet-playful blend of the fresh and the traditional to Thatcher’s hip-hop-influenced contemporary style.
And then there was the Ethnic Dance Festival, in which fusion was the name of the game. Bharata natyam dancers stamped alongside Japanese taiko drummers, belly dancers took on showgirl personas, flamenco met modern dance (bare feet instead of nailed heels, and dancers lying on the floor), Tahitian hula was given a jazzy twist, and Mexican folklórico footwork had more tap in it than STOMP. Only the West African, Filipino, and Balinese groups seemed interested in sticking with tradition.
Dance today is a glorious cornucopia. As the new dance season begins, I urge all of you to make sure that your students have a chance to taste more than one of its flavors. I’m of the school of thought that says teaching pure forms first is best, since that foundation is what gives authenticity to hybrid forms. Not only will such exposure enhance what they already know and appreciate, but it could lead them down a new path in their dance future. —Cheryl Ossola, Editor in Chief
Have you ever noticed that tap dancers seem so happy? Now I know why.
Lane Alexander, co-founder of the tap-crazy Chicago Human Rhythm Project, says people in some cultures believe the soles of the feet are connected with the energies of the Earth. People who are feeling “ungrounded, unproductive, obstructed, clogged, or even stuck,” he says, need to stamp each foot nine times—taking a deep breath between each stamp. This physical act helps to loosen up any sole-related “blockages” that might stand in the way of a natural flow of creativity and inspiration from Mother Earth to ourselves.
I’m not a big believer in mysticism, but this makes a lot of sense. How often, when faced with people or situations that boggle your mind, do you feel like stomping your feet like a 4-year-old? (Probably more often than you’d like to admit!)
When I’m writing and the words won’t come, I pace about my tiny office. I’ve often been tempted to do a time step, but even with no one watching I felt that was an awfully silly solution, so I’ve never done it. Now Lane has not only given me permission but is encouraging me to follow up the time step with an energetic parade of paradiddles.
When I’m feeling particularly frustrated, I feel a strong urge to go walking in the woods. I don’t stroll and enjoy the view—rather, I pound the path so hard that my feet ache when I’m done. Am I subconsciously connecting with the planet?
So, next time your mind is stuck in second gear, just remember that old Jerry Herman song and “Tap Your Troubles Away.” Asian spiritualism and karma aside, it’s got to work. Have you ever seen Tommy Tune when he’s not smiling? —Karen White, Associate Editor
At Dance Innovations, special-needs children are just dancers
By Karen White
Talk to the teachers and staff at Dance Innovations, Inc. and you’ll hear the same thing over and over—“It’s our philosophy. It’s just what we do.” And while they might struggle to put that philosophy into words, the Dance Innovations program for special-needs students speaks for itself.
Owner Susan McCutcheon Coutts made a place for special-needs students from the day she opened her studio in Chatham, New Jersey, 23 years ago. Eighty students with challenges ranging from mild autism to dyslexia to Down syndrome are mainstreamed into regular dance classes. Some are assigned to older students who help them in class; others aren’t. They dance in the recital and a few even perform with the school’s performance teams.
“I have 29 people on staff, and everyone really believes in what we do,” says Coutts. If not, she adds, “they don’t last here very long.”
And this philosophy isn’t limited to the classroom. Dance Innovations performance groups might shine at theme parks and on cruises, or share the stage with professional dancers in performances at the Merce Cunningham Studio in New York City, but just as often they perform for severely handicapped hospital patients.
Many of their performances are fund-raisers for the school’s foundation, which over the past 11 years has granted $50,003 (as of May 26) in scholarships that allow children with special needs or who are underprivileged or struggling with abuse or neglect to pursue whatever artistic endeavor they would like. It might be photography or poetry or voice lessons—or, yes, even dance classes, sometimes at Dance Innovations, but often at another studio closer to the child’s home.
Dance Innovations doesn’t turn away any children with special needs, even if they can’t pay; Coutts will discount their tuition or provide a scholarship. Parents of other students often step forward with money for tap shoes or recital costumes. One adult special-needs student insists on paying Coutts, so she does—$1 a class.
Dance Innovations’ philosophy might be summed up this way: everyone, regardless of needs and challenges, deserves a chance to dance. For teachers like Jennifer Tondo, that’s a draw.
Tondo began teaching at Dance Innovations 16 years ago, when she was also employed at four other studios. She chooses to work exclusively at Dance Innovations. “It’s just a better philosophy here,” she says. “A lot of other teachers here have done the same thing. I felt at home here. We give to these students, and there’s such love here that it makes you want to teach here.”
Another teacher, Linda Frasciello, drives an hour to teach at Dance Innovations. “I’ve taught at other places and this is a wonderful place,” she says. “Sue will never toot her own horn because she’s very humble and a great leader, but I feel there is no other place like this.”
Owning a thriving studio with a philanthropic bent wasn’t on Coutts’ radar years ago as a student at the University of Maryland. A double major in dance and dance movement therapy, she did her postgraduate work with special-needs children and interned at a school for autistic children. “It was then that I realized I wanted to work not just in a therapy setting, but to bring it back to dance,” she says. “Still, never in a million years did I think I’d end up owning a studio.”
She started teaching dance at a Y, where she quickly became the dance director. But as her hours increased and the Y couldn’t afford to fully compensate her for her time, she left and started her studio.
From the beginning Coutts attracted special-needs students—“In my brochures my bio stated I was a movement therapist,” she says—but gave them dance therapy in individual lessons. Quickly she realized that the students “would have more fun in a supervised classroom setting,” and began mainstreaming them into regular dance classes.
Coutts says a few years passed before she was fully comfortable with the situation. “I was scared that I had to treat [the special-needs students] differently, that I couldn’t be myself with them. And I was nervous that the other students wouldn’t accept them,” she says. “It’s funny. The minute I treated them equally with the other kids, it became easy and everybody accepted it.”
Today, out of a population of 1,200 registered students, one or more special-needs students are enrolled in about 35 of the studio’s 125 classes. They can take any style they like—younger students are placed in the ballet/tap/acrobatics or ballet/tap/jazz combos, while older kids take hip-hop, lyrical, or musical theater song and dance.
Most find a style they like and stick with it, Coutts says, offering the example of one student with autism and four with Down syndrome who have been in the same lyrical jazz class for years. “One [student] has a hard time walking, but she still does the arm movements,” Coutts says. “When we do stretches on the floor, the eighth- and ninth-graders help her sit down.”
While most of the students in the lyrical jazz class are about 13, the special-needs students run a little older—one is 24, another 38. In many studios, other students and parents might shy away from this sort of class. At Dance Innovations, it’s one of the most popular, Coutts says.
All Dance Innovations students buy into “the philosophy,” and the most advanced high school dancers act as “shadows” for the more disabled children, helping them in class or in the recital. Everyone claps when those students master a tricky move or step forward to help another across the room.
“As a mom, I think this is wonderful. In today’s society, it’s me, me, me. But these girls see kids out there with a real need and know they can help. They’re making a contribution; they’re making a difference.” —Tracy Dante
It’s an atmosphere that benefits all, Coutts says. The special-needs students enjoy the socialization of a group of peers singing “Happy Birthday” or applauding their efforts, and the rest of the students learn about helping others.
“Some schools I know do special-needs classes [instead of mainstreaming them] because they feel other students will leave,” Coutts says. “I don’t believe that. If you can focus on yourself and your technique, who cares if the person next to you can’t balance or can’t skip, but is trying as hard as they can? They’re not jeopardizing what you’re learning in the classroom.”
The teachers agree. Tondo says she teaches the same curriculum to all students, sometimes slowing it down for the special-needs students. Frasciello believes these students learn as much as the others.
Sometimes Frasciello feels the need to discuss a student’s disability with the others—like one little girl who was prone to outbursts when she became frustrated—but most of the time she doesn’t. “Kids are very accepting and in tune—often it’s the parents you have to say something to,” she says. “But anyone at the studio now knows that this is what we do.”
Stacey Merkel found her way to Dance Innovations three years ago after she tried to enroll her daughter, who has Asperger’s syndrome, in a preschool class at another school. “After one class they said she didn’t pay attention, didn’t follow directions,” Merkel says. “They said, ‘We’ll give you your money back, but this isn’t the right place for her.’ ”
After that negative experience Merkel hesitated to try dance for her daughter again, but she investigated Dance Innovations on the advice of a neighbor. “I looked up Susan’s background, called the studio, talked to teachers—I must have called them 10 times. But they answered all my questions and put my mind at ease.”
Now her daughter Eliza, 6, has advanced from being “terrified” and unable to participate in her first recital to joining the school’s Showstoppers performance group.
“Attention is an issue for her, and the teachers are really good about redirecting her. They just kind of bring her back into the lesson,” Merkel says. “This has been a positive self-esteem builder for her. She’s proud that her performing group was in The Nutcracker this year. She’s proud she’s a dancer.”
Tondo, who has no background in special-needs education, admits that teaching special children is “an adjustment.” But the teachers are able to handle the wide range of disabilities in their classes with Coutts’ help, she says. The director gives them guidelines and strategies and advises them on what to watch for in the classroom.
Tondo is so comfortable now that she’s taken on a new assignment—teaching a Thursday night dance class at the Calais School in Whippany, New Jersey, for a dozen students who are dealing with depression and anxiety. “It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done,” she says. “At [Dance Innovations], I teach the performing groups, where you look at toes and fix arms. Then you have these classes [at Calais] where dance is such an outlet, and you see the smiles and they’re having such a great time. As a teacher, you take every student for what they are.”
Over the years Dance Innovations has built up relationships with schools, medical centers, nursing homes, veterans hospitals, and senior centers throughout New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The 119 dancers in Coutts’ three-tier performing program (beginner, intermediate, and advanced) give up to 50 shows a year at many of these locations, along with recitals, competitions, and a non-traditional Nutcracker. The Dance Innovations Performance Company (made up of dancers in the advanced program level) also dances at Disney (17 years running), Sea World (15 years), and Universal Studios (12 years).
Many of the shows are fund-raisers for the Dance Innovations Performance Foundation. This past May, Coutts says, 61 children received scholarships, and during the school year, 234 were given free tickets to see the school’s Nutcracker and other shows. Coutts is very proud that last spring the foundation was awarded the 2010–11 Eastern Union County YWCA Heroine Award in recognition of its dedication to helping victims of domestic violence.
Tracy Dante, who works in the studio’s office and is sponsorship liaison for the foundation, says the studio sends scholarship applications to all sorts of organizations—YMCAs and YWCAs, churches, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, schools for the deaf, foster family programs, city and county rec departments, and local public schools.
Dante’s own daughters have told her how much they enjoy dancing at nursing homes or senior centers and participating in events like a walk for breast cancer or Dance Innovations’ annual toy drive. “As a mom, I think this is wonderful,” Dante says. “In today’s society, it’s me, me, me. But these girls see kids out there with a real need and know they can help. They’re making a contribution; they’re making a difference.”
As a studio owner, Coutts had to recognize that her philosophy might not be the smartest business decision. She recalls one woman who approached her at a recital, spitting that her daughter’s dance recital “would not be jeopardized because of these students.” Although that was 15 years ago, Coutts says, she can recall the moment exactly. “And I said, ‘You need to leave this studio. This is not the right place for you.’ ”
But Coutts has many success stories. There’s that boy who couldn’t jump at all and who used to practice before every class by holding Coutts’ hands and jumping off the stairs. Or Emma, with a myriad of physical disabilities, who made the hip-hop performing team, or the Down syndrome student who insists on tidying up the studio’s dancewear boutique.
Then there was Jessica, a student until she suffered a severe stroke at age 12. She couldn’t walk or talk, but Coutts worked with her every day and Jessica eventually returned to dance class. “I firmly believe it was the music and the dance that got her back moving, dancing, and functioning as a normal human being,” Coutts says.
Merkel would agree. She’s noticed that Eliza’s focus in the classroom setting is better when dance or music is somehow involved; her daughter’s schoolteacher even incorporates body movement when the two work together on subjects such as spelling.
“Everybody says ‘Hi’ to her,” she says of Dance Innovations. “Eliza will tell me, ‘Oh, my partner was missing today,’ which means she notices, and that’s good for her, too. She can dance here for as long as she wants to—we would never take this away.”
By Karen White
Call Me a Nut
During the holiday season, critics may harp that Nutcracker productions stifle creativity. But that brings to mind an op-ed piece by Sarah Kaufman in The Washington Post (September 13, 2009) that begged us to consider this: “We look to any art form for an intensification of human experience, and no art beats dance in my view for its ability to condense incident and emotion with a power that can pierce the heart. Can this happen amid the familiar waltzing flowers and mirlitons in The Nutcracker? Can it tell us something about life?”
Yes, it can. After interviewing the organizers and participants of a community-wide Nutcracker in Grass Valley, California (see page 84), I think of the Nutcracker tradition in a different light. At a time when the spirit of community seems fractured and more virtual, the act of coming together to make art broadens people’s perspectives. And relationships blossom and are nurtured.
Yes, I understand that sameness can dull the imagination, but when you have lemons, make lemonade—pomegranate lemonade, hard lemonade. Something new and necessary can come of sameness. Figuring out how to make use of the various traditions that define us as individuals and as a culture and society is where personal evolvement and growth happen. We know that practice makes perfect, allows us to deepen our skill level and refine our technique each time we return to the same step. We learn more about ourselves, our levels of patience and resilience, what needs to be let go of and what needs to be gained for us to truly represent our best. And to do that work within a community of people who support us, who have watched us grow over the years as dancers, makes life joyful and fulfilling.
That is the gift that The Grass Valley Nutcracker gives every year to its participants, volunteers, and audiences. And just like the town’s mining history, the results are solid gold. —Arisa White, Editorial Assistant
Can’t Beat the Pay
Years ago, I was chatting with a veteran teacher at a dance convention. We were newly acquainted, so we were trading info on what we did and people we knew. I happened to mention that I did a lot of work with community theater groups, and this woman rolled her eyes. “Oh, I know those kind of jobs,” she said. “You do all the work and get no pay at all.”
Well, I’ve just finished sweeping the floor and putting away the last prop from a middle school production of Grease. I’ve spent months consumed by this show, dragging out the CD every morning at 7, cramming in choreography for one of the show’s 19 numbers before work. I’d race to rehearsals at night without supper and deal with 50 kids—Jared who’s late because of guitar, or Noah who has to leave early for karate, or Baleigh who didn’t show up at all because she read the schedule wrong.
The set was too big and blocked the exits. Parents fussed because their kids weren’t in particular numbers. My voice was overpowered by power tools. The girls who twirled umbrellas during “It’s Raining on Prom Night” kept losing theirs and stealing someone else’s.
I’d teach an entire number once. Then twice. Then yell.
After the last show, the girl who played Sandy handed me a note. This is what it said:
“Of all the four years I have been in drama, your rehearsals are by far the most fun! I really enjoy working with you. You are a very respectable person. I know you recognize effort and appreciate it! You make sure everyone is seen and noticed in your stunning choreography, which I very much respect you for. Thank you so much for the unforgettable years of rehearsals and shows with you. ”
Now, who said this job came without pay? —Karen White, Associate Editor
The power of ballet/tap/jazz and other sampler classes
By Karen White
Combo classes. The words are enough to strike fear into the heart of many a studio owner. For students and parents, the idea can be tantalizing, fun, and affordable—a little bit of everything, like an appetizer sampler.
But how do you, a studio owner with high standards and a reputation to protect, provide top-quality instruction in what is basically a package deal? Is it even possible?
It is, says Leslie Nolte of Nolte Academy of Dance in Coralville, Iowa. “When I started [my studio], I knew combos were the way I had to get the young, unmolded dancers. Combo classes help give shape to those dancers,” says Nolte, who believes teachers shouldn’t expect students to completely change their attitude and discipline habits when moving from a combo to a technique class. “They’re not looked upon as second-rate classes. The first thing I did was make my combo classes as tough as our other classes.”
Students who start at age 2 with Nolte will spend the first eight years of their dance education in combo classes. Everyone at her studio takes either a ballet/tap/jazz combo, or a tap/jazz combo with a full ballet class, until the fifth grade. It’s a system Nolte has slowly put in place since founding the studio in 2000.
“When I first opened I tried to do a little of what I believed. We changed the length—Kinder was 45 minutes, now it’s 60. Second-level combo was 60, now it’s 75. I felt I had to do that to give them a full syllabus, and I have zero problem retaining students,” she says.
And it seems to be working. Fourteen of her students attended summer 2011 intensives at schools such as Pacific Northwest Ballet, The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, Houston Ballet, and Milwaukee Ballet, and two former students danced the lead role in Billy Elliot this year (Alex Ko on Broadway and Marcus Pei with the Toronto cast).
Sticking to standards
At Dance Reflections in Flower Mound, Texas, owner Shelly Pershing has offered combo classes since she opened the school 13 years ago, and that distinguishes her school from other studios that only offer technique classes. “I don’t think people look at our program as just recreational or playtime,” she says. “I honestly feel I could put my kids up against any others, and they’d do just as well.”
Combos work for Pershing because she sets and sticks to standards—such as keeping her combo students in each level for one or two years, not moving them up until they’ve mastered the material. All of her students take ballet/tap combos until age 7, when jazz is added. Even after students move on to technique classes at ages 11 to 13, they aren’t allowed to take jazz without also taking ballet.
Sometimes a child will excel at one combo subject, but not the others. In this case Pershing will mix and match the student’s classes, keeping her in her current combo for the problem subject, but allowing her to jump to the next level combo for the rest. Since the student is basically still taking one combo (but with the subjects split on different days or times), she would still be billed for one combo class, she says.
In rare cases, Pershing might move the student up a level if she believes the student will work hard to bring herself up to speed on the subject or subjects she finds challenging. “Some parents have even invested in private lessons to help further dancers in the skills they lack,” she says.
Even with a combo format, Pershing says, it’s important to “stand your ground” with educational requirements. “You have to be confident enough in your own program to be able to define to a parent why Jane is not moving up.”
At Karen’s Dance Studio in Joplin, Missouri, Nicole Drouin is continuing with the combo format long favored by her late mother, Karen Drouin. The studio follows the Cecchetti curriculum, so every combo offered includes ballet. “It’s the same discipline, the same technique” she teaches in the combo classes as her Saturday Cecchetti technique classes, Drouin says. “Ballet is ballet. Combo classes wear tights and leotards. The same rules apply. Nothing is different except that we don’t have as much time to learn things, so progress is a bit slower.”
A taste of every style
Her mother, who opened the studio in 1971, found that combos were a good way to expose her students to more than one style of dance while also keeping their attention, Drouin says. She herself grew up in combo classes and has danced professionally in Las Vegas and overseas. “I think they give kids a little taste of different styles of dancing,” she says.
Because all of her students come through a combo format, Nolte believes they have a well-rounded background. That means that when it’s time for them to choose technique classes, they can make a more educated decision about what they want out of dance. Starting in fourth grade, serious students can add a class in modern to their ballet/tap/jazz lesson plan.
Once past the combo system, they can decide to drop tap or jazz, but many don’t. “Once they’re good at something, of course, they like it,” Nolte says. “There’s a vested interest, and they’re less likely to quit it. That’s what combo classes have done for us.”
Nolte recognizes that dance students fall into two tracks—serious and fun. Beginning at level 2, serious students can switch to a tap/jazz combo and a separate ballet technique class. This way, she says, she can “make both tracks feel accepted and appreciated.” And all students (aside from those who only take hip-hop) must take ballet.
“My [students’] parents have come to accept that this is the way you start,” she says. “The way we sell it is that even if you’re going to be a ballet dancer, there is no ballet dancer who can’t benefit from knowledge of other kinds of dance.”
Finding the right faculty
Nolte has worked hard to make her combo classes as tough as her technique classes, not only to grow strong dancers but to gain the respect of her students’ parents. “If parents felt the classes were second rate, we would lose students who otherwise would develop into amazing performers,” Nolte says.
She’s done this by insisting that all her faculty members—even those with advanced degrees in dance or professional performing backgrounds—teach combos. Some studios, she believes, undercut their combo program by passing off the classes to high-school-age or beginning teachers. “Even a very inexperienced teacher can come up with 25 minutes of jazz, but at my school we decided not to do that a long time ago,” she says. “Who better to teach my first- and second-graders but my staffers who teach the most advanced levels, and so know exactly where we’re going with this.”
She admits that not all teachers are thrilled with this notion. Nolte sells her concept by insisting that it places the students and their education as the studio’s top priorities, and that students adjust more easily as they move into more demanding upper-level classes. It also connects teachers and students throughout the entire studio. (She also continues to pay faculty members their full hourly wage, whether they’re teaching advanced-level pointe or beginner combo.)
A flexible format
Whether combo classes are taught by one instructor or several teachers who switch as subjects change seems to be a matter of preference. Drouin, who has been running her mother’s studio for about a year after a professional dance career, prefers to handle the combos by herself, just as her mother always did, with the help of student assistants.
Nolte’s faculty members also handle all subjects within a combo. That way, if students appear to be bored with one subject, the teacher can jump to another, or mix things up, like doing ballet to jazz music, or adding jazz arms to a ballet combination. They can also flip-flop subjects—one week they might spent 45 minutes on ballet and jazz, leaving 25 minutes for tap; the next week tap will get the lion’s share of the time.
Pershing, whose specialty is tap, teaches the youngest students in ballet/creative movement and ballet/tap combos. When students advance to ballet/tap/jazz combos at age 7, she handles the tap and hands off the ballet and jazz to another teacher. Working with a co-teacher allows her, as the studio owner, half a class to wander about and see what’s going on in the rest of the studio. Children are excited to advance to that “two-teacher” level, she says, and parents feel they’re getting more for their money.
“When I started [my studio], I knew combos were the way I had to get the young, unmolded dancers. Combo classes help give shape to those dancers.” —Leslie Nolte, Nolte Academy of Dance
She feels it’s important to set goals for her combo students, such as waiting until age 7 to start jazz. Only combo-class students who have achieved a certain level of technique are allowed to participate in the Dance Reflections recital finale. “I constantly give them little things at the studio to work for,” Pershing says.
Combos allow studio owners to create fun new classes, or mix ages and levels, to please a customer base. Last summer Drouin stared a combo called “dance team tech” and allowed in friends of her team members, some whom hadn’t danced in years. The class—a 15-minute barre, 10-minute warm-up, jazz progressions across the floor, and a combination—proved to be hugely popular, with ages spanning from 15 to 26.
She kept it on the schedule for the school year, calling it “Teen Combo.” Several students who want more ballet also attend Cecchetti classes on Saturday. “It was a mixed class I wasn’t sure what to do with, and now it’s one of my favorites,” Drouin says, adding that she usually runs well over the official one-hour length. “It’s a really fun class to teach, and it’s more than full.”
With only one dance space in Karen’s Dance Studio, combos also proved to be the best scheduling option. Drouin is now making plans to open a second room, which would allow more space for additional combo classes as well as more technique classes. Right now, only weekday pointe and jazz technique classes are available for advanced seventh- and eighth-graders and up.
Nolte also believes a schedule made up of large-block combo classes is more efficient than a “Rubik’s cube” of half-hour technique classes. She staggers the start times of combos with other classes, which helps with traffic flow because customers aren’t exiting and entering all at the same time. The one-hour-plus blocks are long enough for parents to run errands.
“Financially, it’s a dream,” Pershing says of combo classes. Parents with kids who want jazz but might balk at paying for technique classes in both that and ballet, see the jazz/ballet combo as a deal. She offers combos up to age 13, so as the students get older and want to add another class (such as hip-hop), they get three subjects but pay for only two classes. “There’s an element of psychology to it,” she says.
Use limited time wisely
Because time is limited in combo classes, Drouin makes sure she has a well-thought-out game plan for the entire season where each lesson plan builds upon what was learned the week before. If the students are struggling with a skill, she will present it with a slight variation or change up the music until they are ready to move on.
“My advanced kids all come through the combo system,” she says. “It all goes back to the class plan. With combos, your time is limited, so there has to be a rhyme and reason for everything. You have to plan your classes very strategically and carefully.”
The key to quality dance education, Nolte says, is not the format of the class but what the teacher does within that format. It’s a lesson she learned after growing up in one-hour combo classes and thinking she could dance—and then finding out in college how far behind she was. She’s also seen plenty of 45-minute jazz technique classes that consist of little more than stretches and leaps across the floor.
Her advice is to make the combos long enough—beginning next year, she’s adding another 15 minutes to her level 1, 2, and 3 combos—and to set as high an educational bar for those classes as for any others.
“We all go into class and close the door. What we do inside is the reason for the success or failure of our mission statement,” she says. “Failure, to me, is discontented children and not giving the service we promise, and what we promise is dance education. I think studio owners forget that.”
Three school owners on why their small, medium, and large schools are just the right size—for them
By Karen White
Size matters. Or does it? It’s important if you’re a sumo wrestler or are eyeing a piece of chocolate cake, but what about dance studios? Is bigger always better, or can contentment be found in studios large, small, and somewhere in between?
It sure can. Just ask Satrina Villaseñor of All the Right Steps Family Dance Center in Prunedale, a rural area near Salinas, California. In her fourth year of business she has an enrollment of 93, with classes averaging 8 to 10 students.
The small studio
Villaseñor has a single-room space in a shopping plaza, so she estimates that she could grow to 120 students, tops. But even growing that much is not a big concern.
“At this point I’m really content,” says Villaseñor, a mom of two. “I effectively manage the studio. I run a good program. I follow through. If I were any bigger, yeah, the money would be good, but something would suffer, someone would lose. I don’t want my kids to lose; I don’t want my students to lose.”
She credits her attitude to a business setback that almost led her to give up on her lifelong dance studio dream. After she had leased two large, beautiful rooms in a performing arts center for two years, her creative movement teacher decided to open her own studio—in the same building! As Villaseñor began her third year, she saw her 80-student enrollment plummet by half. She almost gave up, but instead, in January 2010, she moved across the freeway into her current one-room space.
When she opened her studio in 2007, Villaseñor spent a ton of money on advertising she couldn’t really afford, clung to every parent who walked in the door, and, she says, “worked myself silly.” Now she sees success in more than student numbers.
“It’s hard to sum up what happened with the first location, but I was completely broken down,” she says. “But now, [I think] it was the greatest thing to ever happen to me. I had to really look at why I was doing this and what I wanted to do. I love teaching dance and I want it to be about that, never about the money.”
The big studio
Last summer, Teri Mangiaratti of In Sync Center of the Arts in Quincy, Massachusetts, was similarly stressed—but for a completely different reason. With 450 kids (or, as owners say, 600 “heads in classes”), she had grown to an impossible size for her dual locations in a Knights of Columbus building and a church. So she signed a 10-year lease for an 8,000-square-foot space and took on a $100,000 renovation loan.
The new space opened in 2009 and almost immediately grew by hundreds. “That year I was on the edge—I was crazy,” Mangiaratti says. “I started to second guess myself: do I really want it this big? The phone was ringing off the hook. We couldn’t get a moment of peace. The waiting room was jammed. Even my staff didn’t know how to handle all these people. I thought, ‘This is too much.’ ”
By midwinter of 2010, Mangiaratti’s school had 825 students and had reached 1,000 heads—mostly dancers, but also kids taking music, art, or cooking classes. Her studio is open 9am to 9pm four days a week, 9am to 6:30pm on Fridays, and 9am to 1pm on Saturdays, with no dance classes but plenty of birthday parties on Sundays. Her staff numbers 30—17 dance teachers (plus 10 for music, art, and cooking) and 3 office staffers—earning a total payroll figure that she calls “overwhelming.” But her personal crisis has passed.
“Now I’m feeling back in a rhythm,” she says. “I love it when I come in and the afternoon classes are happening. The waiting room is jammin’. I do like the excitement. I will say it’s always on your mind—it doesn’t ever turn off. But it’s good now.”
In the middle
When Kimberly Sparks purchased her studio, her five-year plan was to grow its 300-plus heads to 500. It was a random number, something to shoot for. She made it. Now in its 10th year, Today’s Dance Center, Inc. in Medford, New Jersey, is still about that size—554 heads (389 students).
That could have changed when the Blockbuster store in her plaza went kaput. With a ground-floor location, good visibility, and 7,500 square feet, the empty space was tempting. If she had taken it on, Sparks could have had the three studios she had long dreamed about, with space left over for a dance store.
“But the landlord wouldn’t rent it to me,” she says. “He said, ‘It’s so big and will cost so much that you’ll probably be out of business three months after signing the contract.’ I looked into it, but I let it go.”
She believes staying smaller was a good business decision. Even in her 1,800 square feet, she’s still meeting goals—such as establishing a professional company, KAOS, which made its debut in April 2009 at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. With 16 trustworthy staffers, Sparks can hop over to New York City for an afternoon master class or seek inspiration at a professional dance performance.
“I love it when I come in and the afternoon classes are happening. The waiting room is jammin’. I do like the excitement.” —Teri Mangiaratti
“If the studio was bigger, I might not be able to do that,” Sparks says. “I’m content because the bills are getting paid and my staff is doing a great job. For any kind of success, you have to stay grounded and within boundaries—between the person who won’t take a chance and the person who takes too many.”
All three studio owners admit that family considerations play greatly into their business decisions and their ultimate contentment. On weekdays, Mangiaratti spends from 9am to 2pm at the studio, leaves to get her kids off the school bus, and returns for the afternoon/evening hours only twice a week.
For Sparks, a “full-time mom and full-time business owner,” staying put instead of pumping revenue into renovations or a larger lease has allowed her to save money for her kids’ college educations.
Villaseñor, who says her family suffered during her first year when she managed her business by herself and taught all the classes, is now home by 6pm to have supper with her husband and kids every night. Her four teachers handle the rest of the schedule. For her, this decision comes at a substantial price—she’s taking practically no salary for herself. Next year, when one teacher returns to college, she will pick up a few additional classes, but she says the setup is working for her right now.
“One of the things my own teacher told me was, ‘You’re not going to get rich doing this,’ and I said, ‘OK.’ I went into this with that in mind,” says Villaseñor.
Small classes, Villaseñor believes, allow her to take her time. If she sees lazy carriages in cambré, she stops to talk about the problem. With many students new to dance, she feels she has time to get them caught up through individualized attention.
When new parents show up, they often mention they’re looking for the personalized attention of a small studio and that word of mouth led them to All the Right Steps. “I have gotten compliments that I respond to everyone as an individual right from the beginning and don’t give cookie-cutter responses,” Villaseñor says.
With no internalized pressure to grow, she feels comfortable fine-tuning her program as she wishes—such as considering canceling her hip-hop program until she can find a teacher who lives up to her standards. (She’s on her sixth one in three years.) “I want to go home at the end of the day feeling like I’m giving these kids the best I can,” she says.
Sparks, rather than constantly seeking out new students, encourages her current clients to take more classes. That means less income (due to multiple-class discounts), but in return she gets more seasoned dancers. “People are committed to you and what you’re preaching,” she says. “I’ve learned: the more people, the more issues. This makes for a more pleasant atmosphere.”
Her school’s size has reduced her to teaching one class a week, plus rehearsals for her professional company. But Sparks still makes sure her students know her by name and feel comfortable approaching her to chat. “I’d really like to make an impact on these kids even if I’m not their teacher,” she says. “I didn’t know that was important when I bought [the school], but I’ve learned that’s important to me.”
When Mangiaratti started with 20 kids in a gym’s aerobic studio 15 years ago, she had no dreams about growing her school so large. “At the end of that first session, when I went to do registration I needed two classes. Then I needed three. Then it kind of snowballed,” she says.
Her school’s size allows Mangiaratti to hire professional office staffers, provide her teachers with a paycheck all year long, and reward everyone’s dedication with a Mid-Year Madness party and bonuses. She can design fun, new programs and be fairly certain they’ll fill up. She can even offer free classes, such as belly dance or parenting workshops, as a gesture of goodwill to her clients, and pay her staff to teach them.
Aside from the limited income, the only downside to her small studio that Villaseñor can see is the physical space. Her performance team attends competitions not to win, but to gain experience on a big stage. Her “lobby” is the section of her one room “where the door opens and there is no dance vinyl,” she says. And while in her previous space she banished parents to another room, she’s now adjusted to having them around. In fact, she finds it helpful, since parents who are in the room can see when their children misbehave.
For Mangiaratti, with so many students “everything multiplies exponentially,” from payroll to cases of toilet paper. With so many management decisions to make, last year she found that “the creative side of my brain turned off” and gave up teaching except for three hours a week with her company kids.
Mangiaratti says managing it all is the hardest part and believes handling a studio this size would be impossible if she wasn’t hyper-organized. For example, by the beginning of March, she had finished her fall schedule. “It’s just planning,” she says. “It seems like my life is just one big schedule. But that’s how it needs to work.”
Sparks says she would love to own her own building, but she’s not willing to let that dream threaten what she already has—a balance of business and family that allows her to stay passionate about dance. “Would I enjoy being that overwhelmed, that overworked?” she says. “The reality is that it’s a continual self-evaluation of where you are and what equals importance for you.”
Mangiaratti remembers attending a dance convention years ago where the conversation turned to what the owners wanted. “I said I wanted to be home when my kids got dropped off from school, and everybody laughed and said, ‘That’s not going to happen because you’re a dance teacher,’ ” she says. “I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I told myself I was going to find a way.”
As for Villaseñor, when she moved into the smaller space, she sensed trepidation when she tried to sell new clients on her studio. Then she realized they were only reacting to her own presentation. “It was the way I was talking about it, because I wasn’t comfortable,” she says. “But now I don’t get any of that. I talk about my awesome little studio and now I just get smiles.”
Dance teachers have it tough, and I’m not talking about their work in the classroom. What’s really a challenge is dealing with the ignorance of students’ parents and those outside of the dance community, for whom dance—ballet in particular—is mysterious and overly romanticized, the stuff of dreams involving ethereal beauty, personal sacrifice, and unexpected love. And often, judging by the questions asked by non-dancers about the verisimilitude of the film Black Swan, completely misunderstood.
Take the case of the deluded dad who, according to a school owner posting on the online forum Ballet Talk in January, brought his 3-year-old daughter to class outfitted with tiny, adorable, and oh-so-inappropriate pointe shoes. Yes, you read that right—the kid is 3!
Judging by the vast numbers of dance teachers who have had to give the pointe-readiness lecture ad nauseam (and often repeatedly to the same parent), as a species we humans must revere the mere idea of ballerina-dom, not to mention all its trappings. There’s something about tutus and pointe shoes that makes parents of female tykes go a little bonkers. What’s befuddling is how they can’t distinguish between the benign qualities of a bunch of soft, floaty tulle and the foot-wrecking constraints of a rigid pointe shoe on undeveloped muscles and bones.
Maybe the answer is to wrestle these folks to the ground and stuff their feet into the most unforgiving pair of pointe shoes on earth (preferably the wrong size) and then demand that they dance. Or even walk. While smiling.
It’s not unusual for the line between reality and fantasy to be fuzzy at times. But these days, it seems to have been drawn with watercolors and left out in the rain. —Cheryl Ossola, Editor in Chief
A New Beginning
I just got off the phone with a studio owner friend of mine. She’s facing the inevitable why-can’t-I-physically-do-what-I-did-yesterday crisis. If you’re over 40, you know what I’m talking about. Grand pliés that leave your knees in agony, fake fiddling with the music system as you gasp for breath, limping through the lobby at night’s end.
When did this happen, you ask? And why, oh why?
Endless amounts of newsprint have been used to describe, in great detail, the agony of aging professional dancers. Their retirements are announced with fanfare, their last performances celebrated with falling rose petals and bravos.
But what about you, the dance teacher? Like a matronly librarian, you suddenly need shoes with support. Down go the ballet slippers to the bottom of the bag while you learn how to teach barre in hip-hop shoes. My friend is clinging to the life she knew, still “kicking up to her eye” as she says, switch-leaping all over the place, paying for it all the next day.
But it’s not the end, I told her, it’s a new beginning for you as a teacher. Now is when you step back and really look at your students. Sure, you always noticed when lines weren’t straight or technique was sloppy, but you were still out there leading the band. Now, as you are forced to stand still, your eyes will pick up the slack. Your students will become stronger and smarter, as well, without your constantly moving body acting as a crutch.
And oh, it’s hard. Your body aches, not from pain this time, but with the desire to move with the music, to take that center stage and own it as you did for so many years. But they are 15 and you are 45. Try to remember that both those facts are good things.
What I always remember is Agnes de Mille, that old curmudgeon, choreographing from her wheelchair. Her muscles may have betrayed her, but her dance never would.
Like Agnes, I will remain a dancer until I die. But at this point, I admit, I intend to keep clinging like a madman to my left split. Ow. —Karen White, Associate Editor
Words from our readers
I read the magazine from cover to cover; it keeps me in touch with the dancing school world. I especially enjoyed the article on my good friend Jeanne Meixell [“Schools With Staying Power: Doing It Mom’s Way,” November 2010], and Diane [Gudat] continues to write wonderful articles with a great flair for comedy.
I read “The World Awaits You” by Debra Danese [“Thinking Out Loud,” January 2011] and wanted to know how she got it out there that she was willing to teach abroad. I teach dance but am also a contortion trainer, somewhat of a rare specialty. The art of contortion is safe if taught properly, and I would love to expose the control and safety of it. If there is a desire to go professional, I have ties to Ska von Schöning and even Cirque du Soleil.
Dance Extensions Performing Arts Center
“High Drama in Black Swan” by Karen White was interesting about a young choreographer learning about movies. Some people thought [the film] portrayed the real life of a working dancer. I had inquiries about whether to take 13-year-olds to see it.
In real life, a good teacher or director should have recognized the girl was unbalanced and anorexic. Unstable, antisocial behavior and an inability to work with other dancers do “not a company make,” nor does a career survive on a single performance, except in the movies.
Anyone who took a young dancer was really turned off about paying for ballet training. As directors, choreographers, and teachers who deal with aspiring young dancers, we have a responsibility to present a more positive, healthy picture of the profession. Dance Studio Life has always reinforced the positive aspects. Please keep doing it.
Barbara W. Thuesen, RDE
Music in Motion®
Ithaca, New York
Editor’s note: You make an important distinction when you say this film (rated R, by the way—this is emphatically not a movie for youngsters) doesn’t represent real life, since nowhere did it claim to be a documentary. We chose to present to our readers something we do see as quite positive: how a young choreographer had the chance to gain new experience in the medium of film
Pigeonholes Are for the Birds
In this issue we asked dozens of people to share their thoughts on how to define that ever-elusive dance form, contemporary. But the fact that we even try to put parameters on an art form got me thinking. Human beings like labels. We like having a figurative drawer in which to place the things in our lives, all neat and accounted for. Compartmentalizing (which is what a definition does) helps us keep our mental and physical lives in order.
But labels can be misleading and limiting, if they coerce us into thinking about something in a certain way. For example, for years I took a class pegged as modern jazz, which was a pretty accurate way to describe it—it was essentially jazz, but with major influences from Horton and lesser ones from Graham and Limón. But at times you could see underpinnings of ballet and even some hints of salsa. It’s not that the label of modern jazz was wrong; it was a good nutshell description. But it didn’t quite tell the whole story.
It’s important to recognize our inclination to label things because such narrowness in thinking allows—even encourages—us to limit ourselves. If we define something, or ourselves, in a certain way for long enough, we start to believe that’s all there is to it, or us. But going beyond our self-definitions allows us to discover the fullness of whatever lies within. I experienced this recently when I challenged myself to write a piece of very short fiction, when my preferred form is the novel. Not only did I have a fabulous time doing it, but I learned a few things about myself as a writer (including the need to resist pigeonholing myself).
Like any art form, dance is always evolving. No doubt when Michel Fokine’s Five Principles, written in 1904, found a home at Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and forever changed the course of classical ballet, some people (at the Maryinsky, for example, which rejected his ideas out of hand) shook their heads and called it an outrage. But in today’s world, we would have described his new approach to ballet as contemporary—something based on tradition that sets off in a new direction.
We’re not going to give up our tendency to stick labels on things. But let’s do it with the idea that they’re a convenience, a way to allow us to grasp the essence of something, and remember that there’s more to it, whatever it is. And then go after it with every ounce of creative juice we can muster. That’s how art lives. —Cheryl Ossola, Editor in Chief
A Very Good Century
There is something very sad about Merce Cunningham’s decision to disband his company (see FYI, page 28). For two years the company has been touring the world, but after one last show on New Year’s Eve 2011, the unitards will be put away for good.
It was Merce’s own decree, announced shortly before his death in 2009. There’s a touch of the pharaohs in it—“If I must die, you, my faithful servant, are coming with me.” But I am sure he also realized that a company willed into life by a single-minded vision couldn’t just become a shadow of itself, dancing the same dances over and over. If the company were to stay alive it would have to grow without him, and perhaps that was too much for him to bear.
And so I say farewell to Merce’s company, feeling a bit melancholy. I don’t want to be a Grumpy Gus, looking back on the past as good times that will never come again, but really, when will we ever see the likes of him again, or of a Balanchine, a Graham, a Tudor? Books are still being written about the beauty and importance of their dances. But these choreographers did far more than just put steps together—they believed fervently that dance was art, and they led their dancers into unexplored territory with the courage of conquistadors.
And oh, the stories that swirled about them! Balanchine shunning his beautiful, crippled wife for his latest star, Robbins tearing dancers to shreds with his tongue, Duncan strangled with her elegant scarf. Graham, bone-thin and aging, clinging to her performing career. They were divas at the barre—and, believe me, I say that with utmost affection.
Certainly past centuries had their geniuses, and there are plenty of creative dancemakers still creating. But the 20th century? Let’s just say it was a very, very good century for choreographers. —Karen White, Associate Editor
A Steely Sugar Plum
Ah, the magic of Nutcracker! Sure, by the time you’re reading this all the sugar plums and other Nut paraphernalia will have been packed away for a good month or more—but I’ll bet one thing won’t have been laid to rest, and that’s New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay’s snipe about dancer Jenifer Ringer’s weight. You know the one I’m talking about: in his review of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker in which Ringer, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, danced the Sugar Plum Fairy, he said she looked like she’d eaten one too many sugar plums.
At the time of this writing, I had just watched Ringer’s appearance on the Today show, where she sat, looking TV-slender, and gave an elegant, dignified response to Macaulay’s insult. Her control was admirable, but then she’s a ballerina, with all the discipline that goes with that. I hope that underneath that sweet demeanor she’s gratified that her fans have shown less restraint, sending into cyberspace a blizzard of outraged responses that rivals the last-show-of-the-run Snow scene in any Nut. They’ve defended her, denying that she is overweight, and chastised him for his insensitivity, especially in light of Ringer’s history of having an eating disorder.
Ringer is 37, a delicate, strong, and beautiful dancer. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing her and watching her stage Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story Suite, in which she often danced the role of Anita at New York City Ballet. The same warmth and generosity that radiate from her onstage are there in real life too.
So it didn’t surprise me that she took Macaulay’s criticism in stride. As she so generously conceded on Today, ballet dancers need to be prepared for criticism, and that includes of their instruments—their bodies. That’s true. And certainly everyone is entitled to an opinion about the aesthetics of those bodies.
This incident has brought to the forefront of the dance community’s attention the question of what’s fair and what’s not in dance criticism, the conventions of ballet’s standards of beauty, and what we’re willing to put up with. There are arguments aplenty to go around, most of them heated and uncompromising in their defense of what their proponents believe is right and fair.
But it’s brought forward something else too, and that’s the graciousness, poise, and quiet resilience of someone who has made ballet her life. Ringer stands for all ballet dancers, especially the women, who have made sacrifices of mind and body that are beyond imagining for most people. All five-feet-and-a-few-inches of her stand as proof that dancers are a breed apart, resilient artists who are trained to face up to whatever challenges await them, be they choreographic or critical.
Ringer deserves accolades, and not just for her performances of the Sugar Plum Fairy. She’s got more than toes, feet, legs of steel from all those years of dancing on pointe. She’s got integrity to match. —Cheryl Ossola, Editor in Chief
Reading Bruce Marks’ comments in this issue (Ballet Scene: A Phenomenal Life, page 66) about the rough-and-tumble Boston Ballet before he signed on as director brought back a flood of memories. In my lifelong love affair with ballet, that first touch of Boston Ballet was like the summer crush that’s oh-so-sweet, and yet over oh-so-soon.
For a few wondrous years, my mother signed us up for season tickets (taking a lot of flak from my father, I’m sure, who never understood what all the fuss was about). We would drive to Boston and walk to the theater district, stopping at a tiny, tucked-away Greek restaurant, where we would dine on—what else?—Greek salads.
Then it was across the street to the Metropolitan Center, where the solemn ushers would keep pointing us up, up, up. If I recall, our seats were about three rows from the ceiling, right up against the sky. The audience seated in the front row of the balcony looked like ants, never mind the dancers, but it was all beautiful. Because these were the years of Laura Young, Elaine Bauer, Anamarie Sarazin, Augustus van Heerden, Stephanie Moy, Nicolas Pacaña, Donn Edwards.
I knew each dancer and would scour the program to see who was dancing what, but it was never too much of a surprise. Elaine always had the ethereal leads; Anamarie, the parts with spitfire and dark wonder. Augustus, proud and elegant, was always the handsome prince. To this day I can close my eyes and picture Stephanie, charming and feisty—and Donn, jetéing after butterflies—in La Fille mal gardée. Nicolas’ smile. And Laura Young, the hometown ballerina, full of the joy of dance, always the audiences’ favorite.
There were lots of story ballets, lots of empty seats. I remember my first La Sonnambula, my first NY Export: Opus Jazz, my first Choo-San Goh.
One year, as a special gift for subscribers, I received a red silk scarf etched with silhouettes of dancers. I kept it in my bottom drawer and would take it out occasionally, then fold it back up in the box.
Last year, when a student needed a red scarf to complete her costume, I remembered my old keepsake. I had to think long and hard about passing on my only souvenir of those days. But I gave it to her. Because like a summer’s love, you always keep the memories. —Karen White, Associate Editor
Wings of Influence
Dance teachers seem to be well aware of their potential to influence their students, both as developing dancers and maturing human beings. But there’s a theory called the “butterfly effect” that might be worth thinking about in terms of teaching dance.
The butterfly effect describes a phenomenon in chaos theory. Now, you don’t need to understand all the nitty-gritty about chaos theory to stick with me here; it’s enough to know that it’s part of the study of systems that are sensitive to initial conditions. What the butterfly effect describes is the fact that those initial conditions, sometimes as seemingly insignificant as the movement of a butterfly’s wings, have a huge effect on eventual outcomes. You see it all the time in science fiction stories, where someone goes back in time and changes (intentionally or inadvertently) the course of history by making something happen that otherwise wouldn’t have, or by preventing something from happening.
So you’re a butterfly. We all are, as humans, since we affect the lives of the people around us—children and other loved ones, certainly, but in the case of dance teachers, every student they come in contact with. How big an effect you have might seem to depend on how much time the students spend with you or how involved you are in their lives. And to an extent that’s true. But if you think about the definition of the butterfly effect, your influence might not be that simple to predict. And it’s certainly not always measurable. You might think that the shy 8-year-old who took class for three months and then disappeared would have gotten little from you—certainly not compared to that senior in high school you trained from the age of 3.
But there’s a good chance you’d be wrong. That 8-year-old could be forever changed, in ways you can’t even imagine, by her time in your school. She might have discovered the artist inside her (and that dance isn’t her outlet). Or gained self-confidence that allowed her to become a math whiz.
The takeaway here is that you can never really know what effect your wings have. All the more reason to flap them with care. —Cheryl Ossola, Editor in Chief
Land of Sweet Repeats
What is it about The Nutcracker? You’d think that after a lifetime I’d be sick of it. But like Fritz and trouble, I can’t seem to stay away, no matter how I think it would be better to spend my money on something I haven’t seen before. Perhaps to a score I haven’t memorized. Or with a scenario with a bit more cultural significance. But alas. When advertisements of sparkling-white ballerinas in snowstorms or nutcrackers with oversized heads start to pop up, I sigh in anticipation.
It doesn’t seem to matter who dances it. Boston Ballet’s production is grand and elegant and fun, creatively designed and with dancers-to-die-for. You have to love a ballet where mice chuck giant pieces of cheese at each other. (Oh my, what would Petipa think?) But I’m equally happy seeing a production by New Bedford Youth Ballet, with a much smaller budget, for sure, but danced in an equally grand spirit.
When I’m desperate, I’ll even settle for a Nutcracker on DVD. I can choose between Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov’s spectacular dancing, or Pacific Northwest Ballet’s imaginative Maurice Sendak setting, or George Balanchine’s roster of stars. I sit there alone (no one will watch with me—they think I’m crackers) and hum along, content that I’m celebrating the season with old friends.
Can anyone recall the first time they saw a Nutcracker? Perhaps someone dragged to the ballet as an adult and subsequently enchanted might remember, but for me, it was always part of the season—as predictable as presents under the tree or my annual Christmas Eve cold.
Do you know that in the original story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, Marie and Drosselmeier’s nephew marry? “At the wedding, two and twenty thousand of the most brilliant figures adorned with pearls and diamonds danced, and Marie is believed to be still the queen of a country where sparkling Christmas woods, transparent marzipan castles, in short, the most wonderful things, can be seen if you have the right sort of eyes for it.”
Well, that explains everything! Apparently, I have the “right sort of eyes.” Hazel, with a hint of stardust. —Karen White, Associate Editor
Learning to Unlearn
I’m writing this right after chatting with British choreographer Wayne McGregor, artistic director of Wayne McGregor | Random Dance and resident choreographer at The Royal Ballet. If you’re not familiar with his work, you should treat yourself to his startlingly innovative approach to exploring the body’s limits and then finding ways to move beyond them. (We’ll make it easier for you—he’s got a DVD of three of his works in the works, and we’ll tell you when it’s released.)
I was talking to him about his stunning work Chroma, made on The Royal Ballet in 2006. In the course of our conversation, we discussed how he has taken to heart some of Merce Cunningham’s words. I’m paraphrasing, but Cunningham said something to the effect that one of the hardest things to do in life is unlearn what we know.
Trying to unlearn is part of McGregor’s approach to the creative process. He’s worked with cognitive scientists at Cambridge University and the University of California at San Diego, exploring various connections between brain and body, and he says he’s discovered that what we call instinct is actually (at least to some extent) a process of calling on what we’ve learned, lessons ingrained so deeply in us that we don’t think about them or sometimes even acknowledge them. We rely on patterns (of thinking, behavior, perception) to help us recognize things and classify them in ways that we can grasp.
Of course, many artists, including dancers and choreographers, claim to work instinctively, and McGregor isn’t suggesting that that’s a bad thing. But he’s trying to move beyond it. As a choreographer, he’s deliberately choosing to forgo the known, to unlearn what he’s learned and push himself toward new paths of creativity. It’s giving him a singular voice in the dance world, one that instills in his audiences an astonishing array of ideas, images, and emotions.
His approach is worth thinking about, and not only in terms of the creative process. Forcing ourselves to look at anything in life with a fresh perspective, without being locked into preconceived ideas, sounds like a move toward greater freedom. —Cheryl Ossola, Editor in Chief
Rah-Rah for Révérence
Sometimes don’t you just want to join Chicago’s Roxie and Matron Mama Morton in a rousing chorus of “Whatever happened to class?” Of course, that song’s joke is that these two hardened broads lament a world without etiquette as they spew foul language and conjure rude images. But the joke wears thin in our world of today, where Good Girls Go Bad, Bad Boys meet them there, and everyone’s mom is a Housewife of Harpyville.
What can dance teachers do about all this? Well, for one thing, we can remember the importance of révérence. At the Bolshoi Ballet Academy summer intensive (the subject of next month’s Ballet Scene), dancers do not one but two révérences every class—one at the beginning, one at the end. Would you expect less from the Bolshoi? Yes, we all know révérence is a basic part of a proper ballet class, but how many times is it rushed or treated like a throwaway, or forgotten altogether, in the hectic world of the neighborhood dance studio?
Révérence does more than just work on form and grace—it stresses the importance of being polite. When teaching a ballet class of little ones, I would explain that révérence is a way for me to say thank you to my students for their good behavior and for them to thank me for teaching a good class. It takes a while for it to become a habit—the kids are mad-rushing for their shoes, you’re dying for a bathroom break—but those few minutes at the end of class will pay dividends. (Ever had a class walk out on you because the clock said it was time to go? And worse, realize that the kids don’t know why you’re mad?)
I think there is room for révérence—or its equal—in every style of dance. What about lining up jazz dancers at the back and having each run forward and do a proper bow? You could teach those tappers a fun little combo ending in “shave and a haircut, two bits.” At another studio where I observed class, dancers approach the teacher and say a personal thank you at the end of every lesson. Even hip-hoppers could handle that.
No matter what you do, don’t forget to thank your dancers in return. After all, as they say, handsome is as handsome does. I don’t remember who said that—but I’m sure it wasn’t Roxie Hart. —Karen White, Associate Editor
Studio’s revved-up barre leaves students gasping—and loving it
By Karen White
Dance teachers take their students through hundreds, maybe thousands, of ballet barres in a lifetime. But how often does a barre end with dancers sweating, panting, gasping—and grinning from ear to ear?
They do at Melissa Kelley’s Dance Studio of Braintree, in Massachusetts, every time the school owner, Melissa Kelley Clark, eschews the traditionally calm, reflective, and refined barre combinations for her own heart-pumping creations. She has given her unorthodox approach the gentle name “A New Way to Ballet,” but her advanced dancers have their own variation on it: “Breathe Hard and Die.”
Or, as 15-year-old Rose Thackeray says, “A brilliant idea.”
“I’m not trying to change classical ballet. I love the structure of the class,” says Clark, a 20-year studio owner. “But the problem is I own a dance studio, not a performing-arts high school. Ninety-eight percent [of my students] come to dance as children for a hobby.”
And she finds that people are afraid of ballet. “They feel it is impossible for the average person to do. I want to spread the joy of dance, not obsess about making everyone a prima ballerina. If I did, then I wouldn’t have a job, and there would be one less teacher teaching ballet technique correctly.”
Clark’s “New Way to Ballet” is nothing if not correct technique. There would be no way to keep up with the brutally fast tempo or remember the split-second changes from balançoire to plié relevé to changement to rond de jambe en dehors (and en dedans) to sous-sus—all in the same 32 counts—with less than rock-solid technique.
Because of its cardiovascular impact, her students also call the stepped-up method “cardio barre,” but Clark doesn’t want it confused with the cardio barres she’s seen on DVDs or exercise shows that wrap a few ballet elements such as pliés into a cardio workout. Her method is not for ballet beginners or “want-to-lose-a-few-pounds” couch potatoes. This is classical ballet presented in a peppy, energized format that challenges students’ bodies and engages their minds.
The idea came to Clark last year after guest teaching at another studio. A young male student commented on how much fun he had in her class, but complained that ballet music was boring and the barre too long. That night Clark couldn’t sleep. Finally, at 3:00 a.m., she got up and started working on a new class to teach that young man later that day.
“I knew I could not take the technical discipline out of the picture, but I knew there had to be a way of presenting the same old barre work, but make it new for the dancers,” Clark says.
She started with the music, downloading fast-paced hip-hop, techno, or remixed versions or portions of classics such as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Rossini’s Barber of Seville, or Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. (Seemingly endless options are available on iTunes, she says.) Then she took all the barre exercises—plié, relevé, tendu, degagé, fondu, développé, grand battement, rond de jambe, port de bras, and frappé—and mixed them into a series of five combinations, using all directions and multiple reverses. The result is a barre that has students visibly panting by the second combination, with three whirlwind combos to go.
“Are your calves OK?” Clark asks one day, after fondu extensions mixed with rapid-fire frappés. The students grin and grimace. The music begins again, and they’re off and running into a killer of a stretch combo, then a finale filled with tendus and cambrés and back attitude balances (for 20 counts!).
“I want to spread the joy of dance, not obsess about making everyone a prima ballerina.” —Melissa Kelley Clark
“Are your legs shaking?” Clark asks cheerfully. The girls nod, seemingly unable to talk. One’s tongue is hanging out. “There,” Clark says. “I’ve done my job!” Because the barre hits so many exercises in each combination, her dancers whip through it in a little over a half-hour. After only a few minutes of downtime as they put away the barres, they’re ready to go on with class.
Despite the girls’ obvious exhaustion, they are ecstatic. “I love it. It’s lots faster, so it’s lots harder,” says Chantal Loreth, 19, a dance major at Dean College in Franklin, Massachusetts. “It’s difficult to keep your body in correct placement, so it challenges your technique.”
“If your heart’s not pumping out of your chest, you’re slacking,” Katie Shiels, 23, says. “I really feel [muscle ache] more the day after these classes. But I love them—they get you pumped up.”
Cheryl McIntyre, 22, was introduced to the “new way” for the first time at a summer class. “I didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “I can really see how this would help with stamina. It was such a good workout—I’d like to do this class once a week.”
Clark pulls out her “new way” barre about once or twice a month, whenever she feels a pepper-upper is needed. Other than minor tweaks, she keeps the combinations the same for the entire school year so the students can memorize them. She limits the barre to intermediate and advanced ballet dancers, making it a bit easier for her intermediate classes. Since the barre jumps right in at full speed, the students need to be warmed up before they begin.
With such a good response from her dancers, Clark has used her method in other areas of her ballet class as well. At a class last summer, upbeat versions of the Aaron Copland music used in Rodeo pumped as the girls launched into saut de chats, grand jetés, and tour jetés from the two corners—one right after another, no waiting allowed. Pachebel’s Canon in D played as the students flew through the eight positions of the body (especially fun for her younger intermediate students, Clark says).
Turns, moving steps such as pas de chat, ballon exercises such as cabriole—almost any part of ballet class can be revitalized by using teen-friendly versions of ballet standards, she says, as long as the combinations are kept simple and make use of fast-paced repetition. Beware of using too many steps—if the students have to stop and think, it defeats the purpose.
Since creating her new barre method, Clark has seen a huge improvement in her students’ overall stamina as well as their ability to perform petit allegro. It’s helped them in other dance classes as well, such as hip-hop and tap, where fast movement is a prerequisite. They also—and this is a biggie, she says—look forward to barre. “Kids come in now asking for this class,” she says.
Clark, who has owned her studio for 20 years and run her ballet company, Braintree Ballet, for 16, admits she isn’t the first person to set ballet to modern music or to think outside the box about ballet class. For her, this fast-paced approach is a teaching tool that challenges advanced dancers and makes class fun for those not-so-serious dancers who view a ballet barre as an unbearable chore.
Even at her school, where ballet is mandatory, she was tired of hearing, “Oh, she would be bored with ballet” from prospective clients. Even recreational dancers who are not beginners have fun with this approach, Clark says, as long as it is simplified for their level. “This lets them feel like they’re breaking the rules,” she says.
Clark believes that a dance studio’s biggest competition comes not from other studios but from cheerleading and soccer; consequently she is happy to share her discovery with other ballet teachers. At one area convention, she says, the teachers were “smiling and laughing like kids again” as they tried to meet the beat themselves.
“Everything has to start with us first. We have to be motivated to teach,” says Clark, who teaches all the classes for her 150 students herself (aside from the occasional guest teacher). “With this new way, I couldn’t wait to get back in the studio and teach. For me, it has been so much fun.”
Creating artists through dance at The Gold School
By Karen White
At a Dance Masters of America competition last March, the students of The Gold School got a standing ovation, and it wasn’t just for their technique. It was because of their artistry. Seven years ago, when Rennie Gold, director of the Brockton, Massachusetts, school, decided to scale back from the competition scene and showcase his students through a series of benefit concerts, his goal was to create artists through dance.
Apparently he succeeded. “It was the second-to-last number in the entire [DMA] competition,” Kristen Bullock, mother of a Gold School dancer, says of “Heart Hand Hug Heal,” an ensemble piece about living with cancer. “And there was not a dry eye in the house. It was so powerful, with so many emotions in one dance. What an incredible gift to be able to learn that artistry.”
Gold’s students know competition success. He’s trained numerous competition title winners, and his dancers have had success regionally, nationally, and beyond. Gold School dancers headlined the U.S. Tap Team (made up of dancers mostly from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York) that took first place at the International Dance Organization World Championships in 2001 and 2002 in Reisa, Germany.
But then Gold (brother of Dance Studio Life publisher Rhee Gold) made the decision to do less competing. Instead, he decided to develop an intensive-study program that would celebrate artistry along with technical prowess. His students still attend two competitions a year. But what they really get excited about are the two full-length dance concerts the school stages annually, which raise thousands of dollars for charities such as the Boys & Girls Club, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, and Save the Children.
But that’s now, in 2010. Back in 2003, the first concert was a financial bust. Gold had to dip into his own bank account to cover expenses and send a donation to the show’s chosen charity, the American Cancer Society. But that didn’t deter him. The next year the school produced two concerts.
“I stuck with it because I believed this could grow and attract a general audience,” Gold says. “I was willing to go this route with my own money because it was part of the [educational] program I was trying to build.” It took three years for the concerts to pay for themselves and raise enough money to make sizable donations without Gold’s financial help.
Last spring’s concert, “Change My World,” ran two nights and raised almost $1,500 for Hugs for Healing, a charity founded by Kristen Bullock after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and $2,200 for the Sherry Gold Foundation, a scholarship program named for Gold’s mother.
This was no recital. Each of the concert’s 30 numbers captured a mood, made a statement, or told a story. Pieces blended seamlessly into each other, sometimes with dancers staying onstage to begin the next piece with the new group. Video projections and lighting were used to full effect. The 63 performers, ages 10 to 24 and members of Project Moves, the school’s intensive division, danced to music, to spoken word, even to their own breath.
Along with Gold, Broadway veteran Larry Sousa and other faculty and guest artists choreographed dances that ranged from the stylish Broadway of “Swing It Sisters” to the heart-wrenching modern of “Mandela’s Dream,” from comedy numbers to elegant lyrical pieces to high-powered, jump-off-the-stage jazz.
The night ended with “Heart Hand Hug Heal.” Dancers quoted statements made by children dealing with cancer, then moved through poignant images of the struggle, pain, and hope that define life with cancer: the fear of isolation, the embarrassment of losing hair, the warmth of a friend’s embrace.
“All through rehearsals they told us, ‘It’s not just doing the steps to do steps; it’s what you feel, how you give back.’ It makes the dances more powerful.” —Emily Bullock, Gold School student
“All through rehearsals they told us, ‘It’s not just doing the steps to do steps; it’s what you feel, how you give back.’ It makes the dances more powerful,” says Kristen Bullock’s daughter Emily, an eighth-grader who has danced at The Gold School for nine years.
Competitions typically look for and reward the best technical dancers, and the pieces that take top awards often are designed to please judges—certainly not bad things. Emily explains the difference: “In a competition, we’re paying the judges to watch us. In a concert, the audience has paid to watch us. So we want to give back more.”
Today the concerts attract a wide-ranging audience, from residents of a nearby assisted-living center to students of other area dance schools. “The concerts are about pleasing a general public that knows nothing about dance, and who doesn’t necessarily love you because they are your parents,” Gold says. “A dance company in the real world has to make an audience feel something, to laugh or cry. If you can pull that off, you’ve done your job as an artist.”
As the school’s focus changed, Gold warned his students that the concert-style pieces they would now be presenting (rather than the standard competition fare) might not be met with enthusiasm from competition judges. “Sometimes they go over, sometimes not,” he says.
Take a piece called “Ancestors,” with simple movements and loose white clothing. The dancers thought Gold’s choreography “was the most beautiful thing we’ve ever seen,” says former Gold School student Kellie Grant, a 2010 graduate of Emerson College in Boston. “But it was long and not flashy. It just didn’t translate to the judges.”
The dancers are OK with that. “We stood apart as dancers,” says Katie Kozul, a freshman in the Ailey/Fordham BFA program in dance, about her 12 years as a Gold School dancer. “It was all about the story, not about putting in a turn because we needed points. Competitions are good—we got inspired by other studios—but this gave us the potential to grow as dancers.”
Ross LeClair, a freshman in the New York University dance department, joined the Gold studio three years ago and noticed the difference in approach. “Especially coming from somewhere else, this was a big change,” he says. “[At The Gold School] we learned what art is and what it can do for us.”
Kellie Grant says the focus on artistry encouraged her to become a choreographer. In Across the Universe, a piece she created for the “Change My World” concert, she wanted to show how people connect through communication and relationships. She used imagery such as links and chains, hand holding, and even sign language to make her point.
“Rennie always gave us lots of opportunities to make our own decisions as dancers,” she says. “As a choreographer, [when] the students develop that, it helps your ability to put your vision on their bodies. We say what we want, and the kids understand how to put it on their bodies.”
Unlike recitals or competitions, the concerts teach the dancers how a professional dance performance is put together. Preparation for each show includes a tech week of onstage rehearsals, during which the kids are exposed to the setting of light cues, sound checks, and stage managing details. “This is an experience most kids their age never get. Because of this, they know a lot about how a real dance company works,” Gold says. “This has all paid off because I’ve watched a generation of my kids grow up with this, and I’ve seen what it’s done for them compared to the kids who never had it.”
Gold believes the combination of a strong technical base (at least three ballet and two modern technique classes a week), the emphasis on artistry, and the concert experiences is a winning one for his students. Many have been accepted into dance departments at prestigious schools such as Juilliard, Fordham University, and New York University, while many others dance professionally.
In a way, these concerts mark a return to The Gold School’s roots. When Gold was a child, his mother (and the studio’s founder), Sherry Gold, organized her best dancers into a troupe that did benefit shows. But over the years, as competitions became the rage, the benefit performances faded away. When Gold took over the studio upon his mother’s death, he says, “I just did exactly what she did.”
Gold’s thinking about the purpose of performing changed when a student showed him his application to Juilliard. One question—“When did you first discover you were an artist?”—struck him. “I had never looked at it that way,” he says. Then one day at a competition, a teacher from another school made a telling comment. “She said, ‘You should be doing your work for the general public,’ ” Gold says. “It got me thinking about the benefits we used to do.”
After the first lean years, the school learned how to harness the power of technology to promote the concerts. Gold knew that attracting the public to the concerts—not just parents—was the key to financial success. Last spring, five “video commercials” showing the dancers in rehearsal ran on YouTube, and the studio’s Facebook page was buzzing. With so much interest outside the dance studio, ticket sales skyrocketed. “We always had a bank account, but it would end up empty,” Gold says. “Now it has money in it. It’s an awesome feeling.”
This year, the power of dance to reach people and change lives took center stage at The Gold School. Throughout the year, the Project Moves dancers embraced the concert’s designated charity, Hugs for Healing, raising money through sponsorships. The charity donates tote bags filled with fun and helpful items to cancer patients, including the Hugs for Healing signature item—a sweatshirt sporting painted handprints representing “hugs” from family members.
In addition, parents held special fund-raising events. A “Yoga Day” at one mother’s yoga studio raised $700, while another mom’s “Pampered Chef” party brought in $600.
The most memorable moment happened in January when 11-year-old cancer patient Lexi Williams and her family met with the Project Moves dancers to talk about the reality of living with cancer. “It made me appreciate life more,” Matthew Gilmore, an eighth-grader, says.
“She just wants to go to school, but there’s so much craziness with the cancer, she’s just happy to get up every day,” says former Gold School student Kelsea Strucki, now a freshman at Marymount Manhattan College.
“It was one of the best days ever at our studio. It was a huge reminder to our kids about how lucky they are,” Gold says, adding that he and his faculty used Lexi’s experiences for choreographic inspiration. “Anytime a kid in rehearsal is looking tired, I say, ‘Remember, remember.’ And it works.”
At their two competitions this year, The Gold School dancers took home many of the top awards. But when interviewed for this story, all they wanted to talk about was the concert when Lexi and her family sat in the front row.
“In the concerts, you connect with each other and the audience,” Kelsea says. “I didn’t realize how much until I saw them in the front row, and the audience was crying. They understood what we were dancing.”
Perils of Prizes
You hear it all the time, from studio owners and competition directors: competing isn’t about winning; it’s about the experience. About learning, teamwork, developing stage presence, testing your limits, finding out whether you’re a minnow or a giant koi in the big pond of the competition arena. All good stuff.
But here’s something to think about before you sit your competition kids and their parents down to talk about your expectations for the upcoming season. In a study on the effects of competition done at Brandeis University, two groups of girls ages 7 to 11 were asked to make paper collages. One group was told that whoever made the best collage would win a prize; the other was told that a prize would be raffled off.
The results led the researchers to conclude that intrinsic (internal) motivation, such as taking pride in one’s work and enjoying the experience, encourages creativity, while extrinsic (external) motivation, such as competing to win something, is detrimental.
Does this mean all competition is bad and it’s time to disband the team? No. It means that teachers should understand that the nature of competing might limit their dancers’ ability to be creative onstage in that context. Since the dances are choreographed —no one’s doing improv out there—I mean creativity in the sense of personal expression. So next time you ask your competition dancers to put all that heart and soul into a performance, you might want to temper your expectations. Or not. One study is far from conclusive, after all.
But here’s what I’d like to know: do the dancers perform the same dance differently on the competition stage than in a recital or concert? Without the burden of judgment, are they freer, more expressive? Since dance is so ephemeral, it could be difficult to make that kind of comparison. And you could argue that if the dance has more heart and soul in it during the recital, it was because of all the practice of doing it on the competition stage. Still, I’m curious. If you have the opportunity to compare the two, be sure to write to us about what you see. —Cheryl Ossola, Editor in Chief
Setup for Failure
At my daughter’s school, the fourth-graders were deciding which instrument they wanted to play the following fall. A family with a special-needs child approached the band director, who advised them to pick a popular instrument so their child wouldn’t be alone, preferably a woodwind (easier to play than a brass), and something not too expensive to rent, in case the child changed his mind.
After listening to a presentation on the attributes of various instruments, the parents made their decision: the French horn!
Let me explain: the French horn is not only a brass instrument, but it’s one of the toughest ones to play. That’s why my daughter is the only French horn player in the 50-plus-member middle school band. And while a flute runs about $22 a month, renting a French horn costs $140.
Sounds familiar? In my studio experience, I call this setting your child up for failure. It’s the “I know Suzie’s just started ballet, but she wants to be in with girls her age” argument, and the ever-popular “Suzie’s bored in this level; I’m sure her behavior would improve if she were challenged more.”
Sometimes you just have to say, “Wow.” You line up rational arguments based on years of experience and knowledge, and the parents shoot them down like rusty tin cans on a fence. No, a 3-year-old is not ready for hard shoe Irish step. No, she can’t take pointe. Your child is dying to take that advanced jazz class, but she’s never taken jazz? What was that old show—Father Knows Best? I bet a dancing school parent came up with that stupid title.
Despite our best efforts, some kids leak into classes they shouldn’t be in. Inevitably they hang in the back, lost. They take up class time learning simple moves they don’t know because they skipped a level. They frustrate the other dancers and mess up the recital dance. They don’t improve. Or worse—they become frustrated and drop out. All they have learned is that they can’t dance. What a shame.
I tell parents that I know what it feels like to be in over your head. Every time a convention teacher announces, “I just taught this choreography to some 22-year-old professional dancers in L.A.,” I know that feeling’s comin’ on. The parents don’t care. They need the convenience, the car pool, the class level they can brag about.
If only I knew how to make parents see the light, I’d charge you folks three payments of $19.99 and make a fortune. For now, I can’t wait to see my kid’s band director again—hiya, brother! Join the club! —Karen White, Associate Editor
Taking It to the Streets
Flash mobs. Specifically, dance flash mobs. They’re all over YouTube, and judging by the frequency with which people on Facebook link to them, they’re as popular with non-dance folks as with dancerly types. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re missing out on some big fun. Check out the ones called “Sound of Music | Central Station Antwerp (Belgium),” “The T-Mobile Dance” (even though it’s a commercial), Food Court Musical, and “Hit and Run Hula @ Union Square” if you want to feel a goofy smile creep across your face. Heck, you might even get a bit teary.
So here’s your cue to say, “Hey, I could do that! What a great way to share dance with the community.” Yes, you could brighten someone’s day, spark some conversation among strangers, maybe even get a few sideliners up and dancing with you. And who knows, maybe even rustle up a few new clients.
What’s that common wisdom—everyone loves a surprise? That might explain part of the appeal of flash mobs, but I’ll bet a good chunk comes from the infectious enthusiasm of the dancers. Who better than dancers to deliver some smile-inducing, mood-altering improbability into the humdrum of our workaday lives?
See you on the streets. And don’t forget to post a video on our Facebook page. I want to share in the fun. —Cheryl Ossola, Editor in Chief
One of my favorite quotes about dance comes off my coffee mug—“Dance is the only art wherein we ourselves are the stuff of which it is made.” Wordy, but nice. Sometimes in class I’d turn that into a riddle and see if any meaning jumped out. “What does a painter need to make a painting?” Paint, paper, brushes. “What does a musician need to make music?” An instrument. “What do dancers use to make art?” Ourselves, of course! Little kids wiggle with excitement when they figure it out—it makes them feel special, and rightly so.
Perhaps it is this idea of embodying art that makes dancers so eager to share with others. Teams of little kids in tap shoes are always trooping off to nursing homes, elementary schools, or community festivals. Sure, they love to perform, but there are more prestigious places to do so than the local senior center. Boy and Girl Scouts at least get a badge for doing helpful stuff—what do dancers get?
I started thinking about this after doing a story about New Bedford Youth Ballet’s performances in hospitals, senior centers, and schools (see Ballet Scene, DSL, July 2010). The kids were great, super-polite and accomplished. And they all talked about how important the experience of sharing dance was to them.
I recently took a group of my singing dancers (think Glee, but without all the pregnancies) to a nursing home. My idea was to give my youngest dancers, who started class too late to prepare a recital piece, a chance to perform. But gosh darn, weren’t those elderly people already sitting and waiting when we got there a half-hour early? Didn’t they smile and love it all? My motivation wasn’t to help other people, but that’s what we did, and how great is that? It was like that first ride on Space Mountain—I wanted to jump up and do it again.
Every winter my late tap teacher, Rosie Boyden, would take her adult tappers to do the shim sham at an assisted learning center. Rosie shared her life and she shared her dance. To her, they were one and the same. Studios everywhere provide these opportunities for their students, and it might be the most meaningful thing they do.
All that teaching time in the studio is making good dancers, but I have to believe that all this sharing is making those dancers better human beings. —Karen White, Associate Editor
Footworks Dance Studio looks to its financial future with the 5-and-under set
By Karen White
Some studio owners would blanch at the idea of 175 dancers ages 4 and under running about, but Shelly Wood is in preschool heaven.
“I’ve often said I could run a studio just over-the-top with preschool,” says Wood, owner and director of Footworks Dance Studio in Winter Garden, Florida. “They are the kids who really want to dance. They have new, fresh minds and are ready to absorb everything you show them. They’re just so excited, and if you bring out the fun in dance, you can make them love dance for a lifetime.”
While preschool classes aren’t the only offerings at Footworks—the studio runs a full program of ballet, tap, jazz, and other classes for older students—they are its fortune and fame. Five days a week, kids and parents bustle in for classes in Creative Movement 1 (2 ½- to 3-year-olds), or Creative Movement 2 (“experienced” 3- and 4-year-olds). Three mornings a week, toddlers arrive for Dance With Me (1 ½- to 2-year-olds). Other preschoolers study acro in Movers and Tumblers. Then there’s Dramatic Play 1 for 4- to 6-year-olds, Dramatic Play 2 for 5- or 6-year-olds and up, and Musical Theater for older students.
In fact, the Footworks preschool program is so popular that Wood keeps expanding the schedule to accommodate more classes—she’s up to 15 Creative Movement classes a week with between 9 and 13 dancers each. With an 80 percent retention rate, she’s added more lessons for ages 5 and up as well.
Other studios may see preschool classes as a necessary evil—or worse, as strictly moneymakers. Yet Wood spent much time and thought developing her Creative Movement class curriculum to serve a dual purpose: first, to engage children through fun and games and make them love dance; and second, to prepare students for technique classes, which begin at age 5.
Doing so, she’s broken the unwritten rules for preschool classes about length (as short as possible) and curriculum (parents want to see steps). Creative Movement 1 and 2 classes run an hour and a half. Within that time, students not only do ballet pliés and tap heel toes, but they devote chunks of time to fun, energy-oriented activities such as playing with a parachute or hula hoops, moving through an obstacle course, or using scooter boards.
There’s also time for a non-dance activity in each class, such as coloring pictures of ballerinas or listening to the story of Swan Lake. “This gives them a chance to rest and breathe; plus the transitions get them excited about that next thing,” Wood says.
With a full hour and a half, teachers don’t panic about time spent on shoe changing, the inevitable bathroom breaks, sips of water, or announcements about loose teeth and upcoming birthday parties. “There’s a lot of downtime. One will start crying, and two more start,” Wood says. “In the beginning, they’re probably getting one hour of real lesson. By the end of the year, it’s about an hour and 20 minutes.”
Unorthodox, perhaps, but Wood was confident her method would work. How did she know? She has a bachelor’s degree in theater and dance from Fontbonne University in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, and years of teaching dance in the evenings. But more important, from college graduation in 1992 until opening the studio 10 years later, Wood says she “made sure I applied for jobs that I felt would be working toward my end goal [of owning a studio].”
As assistant director of a KinderCare Learning Center in Rosemont, Florida, she was solely in charge of the bottom line of the private, education-based day and afterschool program for infants, toddlers, and young students. “I was running numbers, keeping classes full, meeting student-teacher ratios,” she says. “It was an eye-opening experience.”
She also worked as director of Sylvan Learning Center in Orlando, a subject-based tutoring service for K–12 students. And as marketing coordinator for Lakeshore Learning Store, a California-based company that sells educational materials, furniture, games, and books, she learned how to make contacts and network within the public school system.
With all that experience, Wood decided to open shop. Her husband, Mike Wood, a graphic designer, was rapidly moving up the ladder at Disney World in Orlando. The couple had met years before as teammates on the Disney crew preparing for the opening of MGM Studios. With his career firmly in place, they figured they would be staying in Florida for a while. Footworks opened in January 2002 with 200 students.
Right from day one, Wood had her Creative Movement curriculum—activities, transitions, time limits—all mapped out. She has since trained five teachers in the basic format, all of whom assisted with her for at least three months before going solo in their own classes.
Her teachers are welcome to put their own style on the Creative Movement format. Melissa Breaud, who teaches Creative Movement 1 and 2, Dance With Me, and technique classes, also teaches in the public school system, working with autistic children. “I come from a teaching perspective—I’m not a singer or entertainer like some of our teachers—so I use more repetition stuff,” she says. “I have a million little sayings, like ‘Hot dog, hot dog, hot diggity dog,’ if I want their attention. I use silly terms for ballet terminology.”
Breaud says no pressure is put on students, who are usually eager to participate in all the fun activities, such as taking a “magic carpet ride” through cones and under the barres. Students practice new steps as they follow a path of ribbons or weave in and out of hula hoops. “The kids come back because we make it fun, and they laugh,” says Breaud. “I’ve had parents say, ‘I enjoy watching you more than the kids—you’re having so much fun in there.’ ”
All of Wood’s Creative Movement teachers have prior preschool or elementary school teaching experience, but that’s not her main hiring criterion. She looks first for that “love of little ones. Either you have it or you don’t,” she says. “You have to be energetic and fun no matter what the rest of your day might bring. It takes a special person with that knack for the little ones, and not everyone can do it. I have to find people who have that gift.”
“[Preschoolers] have new, fresh minds and are ready to absorb everything you show them. They’re just so excited, and if you bring out the fun in dance, you can make them love dance for a lifetime.” —Shelly Wood
Parents learn about the format through the studio brochure, plus teachers offer explanations on days when parents are invited in to watch. Otherwise, they might not understand why a frog puppet named Greenie is talking to their little dancers about keeping the world clean. “It’s just a few minutes of chitchat,” Wood says. “It really helps if [the kids] have a time to share in class, and they know I’m going to give that to them.”
And they learn lots of solid dance. Creative Movement students learn first and second position, plié and tendu, and how to stand at (not hang on) the barre. By Level 2, steps are taught in French. According to Wood, the children are ready for full-hour technique lessons at age 5.
By then, parents see that their children are comfortable and happy dancing for an hour and a half; consequently they aren’t fearful about the additional half-hour of dancing required if their child wants to study two subjects. “They don’t question the expense [of two full classes]. Most of the concerns are whether the child can handle it,” Wood says. “At 30 minutes more, it’s not that much time. It’s really helped my business [retain students].”
Dance With Me is the “typical Mommy and Me” class, Wood says. A parent, grandparent, or nanny helps each child with the movements. Simple steps like heel drops (in ballet shoes, since tap shoes are too slippery, she says) are folded into fun games, such as an “Itsy Bitsy Spider Ballet,” freeze dance, or parades around the room. Large motor skills are rehearsed through crab walks or basic tumbling. They also learn how to be in a classroom by sitting on a line of hot-pink duct tape, waiting their turn, and listening to the teacher.
When little ones miss a class and have to make it up with a different teacher and group of kids, it can be traumatic and difficult. So Wood replaces that fear with familiarity. One instructor teaches all three Dance With Me classes, and each Creative Movement teacher has at least two classes in either Level 1 or 2. Multiple classes in each level do the same recital song and dance and even wear the same costume. (Footworks runs three shows.)
In its early years the studio blanketed the area with advertising but now relies on word-of-mouth and partnerships with local public schools to bring in new students. It’s common for Wood and some Footworks teens to show up at an elementary school’s Mexican Fiesta Night to teach a little salsa, or donate a basket with studio T-shirts, free registrations, and lesson gift certificates to a school auction.
“This is something I learned at my other jobs,” Wood says. “It’s cheaper than advertising, and just takes a little bit of my time. But it’s a captive audience of the right age group. It makes you look good with families in your community, and those are the ones who come back and support you over and over again.”
Footworks’ birthday party program is constantly booked with preschoolers who show up with groups of friends for dancing and fun. After investing in pink chair covers and over-the-top decor to spice up a studio, Wood has found that the parties not only bring in income but, again, work as a marketing tool for her target age group.
She also accepts children as young as 3 in her Movers and Tumblers class (taught by an instructor with special-needs training, it attracts many autistic children), and as young as 4 in Dramatic Play 1 (for the little girls who dream of one day portraying Cinderella at nearby Disney World).
Certainly, preschool classes come with their own built-in challenges. Safety is top priority, Wood says. The barres are bolted down and classrooms are cleaned and sanitized more regularly. Extra items such as parachutes and the changing table provided for Dance With Me participants were an initial expense. The presence of more little ones makes recitals more cumbersome and requires more backstage volunteers. And everyone involved has to have an endless wellspring of patience.
But it’s all worth it, Wood says. With 550 students in the school, she says the retention rate is high. That’s because her preschool staff “works incredibly hard to get kids to love dance forever,” she says, and the studio’s family-friendly atmosphere is based on constant communication with parents.
“That first preschool group was the largest group to come into our studio, numbers-wise. Now they’re turning 7 and 8,” Wood says. “Our largest core is always our littlest ones, and they stay with us, and we keep growing. It will be very cool to see how many of those first little ones stay with us until graduation.
And for dancers with Down syndrome, it stands for dreams come true
By Karen White
At first glance, there’s no mystery to the “d” in “Company d.” It stands for dance, or maybe for Darlene Winters, the speech therapist and lifelong dancer who founded the group nine years ago. Learn a bit more, and you might think it refers to Down syndrome. Perhaps. But anyone looking to describe these dancers with another “d” word—disabled—would be very, very wrong.
“All the things ‘d’ stands for—drive, drama, determination—there’s a multitude of possibilities,” says Nancy Thielemier, mother of veteran company member Kenny Thielemier. “If you dwell on what [these dancers] could have been, that doesn’t get you anywhere. Darlene has shown what they can do.”
And what can a company of dancers born with Down syndrome do? How about move an audience of 100 hardened New Yorkers to tears? Learn and retain a performance repertory of modern, jazz, and lyrical dances? Commit and keep to a twice-weekly class and rehearsal schedule with performances once a month? Deal like professionals with technical snafus or unfamiliar dance spaces? Take class alongside Liza Minnelli (who was so moved that she jumped up and sang “New York, New York” right on the spot)? Never mind making friends, creating art, walking tall. Dreaming. Inspiring. “I feel my heart as I dance inside my soul,” says Kenny Thielemier.
“They’ve taught me to have more patience and more understanding of how to get through to students,” master teacher Francis Roach of Luigi’s Jazz Centre in New York City says. “I just fell in love with them, and I think the feeling is mutual.”
None of this comes easily—not to the dancers, struggling with communication and social and physical challenges; not to their parents, often overwhelmed with raising a special-needs child; and not to Winters, who handles the entire load of teaching, choreographing, coordinating, and networking needed to keep the company going.
“The biggest question I get from people is, ‘How did you get started?’ ” Winters says. “Where did you come from to get to this spot in life? Well, it’s been a journey.”
The journey began when Winters, a speech language pathologist, began to notice how integrating music and the arts into her work with special-needs students at a private school got results. One day her boss, a Benedictine nun, proposed a hefty challenge: “You like dancing—why don’t you do The Nutcracker for Christmas?”
That was the beginning. Winters started teaching ballet and jazz to her charges, putting on dance productions. She began coordinating with the Memphis Arts Council, creating cross-curriculums with public school teachers, sharing dance with any and all special-needs populations. When the Memphis Early Intervention program wanted a special show to mark the 15th anniversary of its Special Kids and Families program, which assists Down syndrome children from birth to age 3, it approached Winters. Winters took five of the program’s first graduates (now all 15 years old) and taught them a dance to “Night Fever.” It was a smash, and Company d was born.
“[The dance] was so simple, yet after it was over, I said to the parents, ‘I want to keep doing this. Just tell me where and when,’ ” Winters says. “It was one of those things like breathing. I couldn’t wait to start class with those kids.”
Those original five are still with Winters and have been joined by nine other senior company members, all between the ages of 18 and 32, plus 10 apprentices in their mid-teens. All sign commitment contracts, take class, and learn choreography every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m., and they put in extra hours to prep for performances.
About once a month the company dances publicly, whether it’s a low-key show at a senior citizens center or a performance for an audience of 600 at the National Down Syndrome Conference. They’ve headlined Diversity Day at the Fed Ex national headquarters in Memphis and hoofed through their own 25-minute show at Dollywood. The summer of 2008 marked the company’s New York “tour,” with classes at Luigi’s, a performance in an off-Broadway theater, sightseeing and—of course—hobnobbing with Liza.
Roach, who travels the world teaching the Luigi method, remembers the day Winters asked if he would come to Memphis. Her dancers couldn’t seem to focus on any warm-up she had tried, from ballet to jazz to modern. After taking a class at Luigi’s, Winters had realized the holistic and therapeutic approach of his method might work with her company. Roach agreed.
“I was concerned about their range of mobility, but they were heartened by the set technique,” said Roach, who spent an entire week in Memphis. “They got the repetitions, which allowed them to learn and re-learn.”
Many challenges remained. Most dancers had limited stamina, muscle weaknesses, and trouble jumping and transferring weight. Long before tendus or pliés, Winters concentrated on moving through space and creative movement, locomotion, and rhythm. Today, a lesson might draw from numerous traditional dance techniques as well as yoga, improvisation, or percussion study. In addition, some dancers could not take their eyes off the floor or were shy and withdrawn, unable to focus, or moody. Winters had to find a way to communicate with and encourage each dancer. Moving together, remembering choreography, spatial awareness—each hurdle was set particularly high.
She has responded by setting her own developmental goals for each piece, whether technical or artistic. She completes the choreography first, then backtracks, determining which skills her dancers will need to make that choreography happen.
“They’ve taught me to have more patience and more understanding of how to get through to students. I just fell in love with them, and I think the feeling is mutual.” —Francis Roach, Luigi’s Jazz Centre
And it does happen. From that first “Night Fever,” when parents thrilled to see all six dancers point their index fingers to the sky at the same time, Winters has filled the company’s repertory with technically challenging, mature choreography. “The Prayer” is a lyrical ballet incorporating sign language; Elvis’ “A Little Less Conversation” is a spicy jazz piece; “Canon in D” is based on classical ballet.
Peter Barton, a New York City–based documentary filmmaker, features the company’s dance to West Side Story’s haunting “Somewhere” in his film Determined to Dance. As he cuts from interviews in which the dancers talk about their sometimes painful life experiences to their heartfelt dance, he almost defies viewers to make it through the video without sobbing.
“There is a preconception [about people] with Down syndrome that they are not really sharp, but these dancers are able to put on their stage face and project confidence,” says Barton, who spent two summers filming and interviewing dancers and family members. “I wanted to focus on the trajectory of the struggle of mastery for them, to see how they work together and see what their secret is.”
The secret is that Winters doesn’t believe in the limitations society has set for her dancers. “I wish I had a dime for everyone who’s said, ‘I didn’t know people with Down syndrome could do this,’ ” Nancy Thielemier says. “Darlene puts no limit on their abilities. If they’re whining or they don’t feel good, she says, ‘Too bad! Get out there!’ She inspires them to do their best.”
Thielemier recalls the difficult days of Kenny’s birth, of the family members who questioned her decision to have the child, of the medical professionals who said, “Don’t expect much.” Today her son dances downstage center and confidently connects with the audience. He is a vital member of a loving, supportive dance team, follows a full weekly schedule of work and activities, and wants to be a weatherman. He can also look a waitress in the eye and order his own meal—something his mother did for him for years.
While some Down syndrome individuals tend to duck their heads when they speak, Thielemier says, Winters makes the dancers look up when they speak to her. “It really defies description, all the good this has done,” she says.
Winters has set a goal for audiences, as well: to open their eyes. “Seeing ‘disabled’ individuals doing something they never expected them to do—it’s like pulling down a wall,” she says.
Each summer, Company d attends a two-week summer intensive at the Hutchison School in Memphis, a four-year college prep program for girls, assisted by students from the school’s Center for Excellence Leadership Institute. “I’m learning so much from them and their outlook on life,” Mary Aubrey Landrum, a Company d volunteer intern for four years, says. “If they mess up or forget a step, it doesn’t matter. They have such a positive attitude and are so willing to learn.”
Company d has so touched her life that Landrum, an accomplished harpist, invited the dancers to perform during her solo in a senior concert recital in April. “They are working on a dance right now,” said Landrum last winter, admitting she anticipated that the dancers just might steal the show. “I am so excited—I will remember this forever.”
Every time Company d performs at Hutchison, whether it’s a number from their repertoire, a work in progress, or even a section of their Luigi warm-up, it ends with a standing ovation. “Company d is very inspirational to watch as an audience member,” says Tracey Ford, director of Hutchison Center for Excellence. “They have a very high quality of work and you become very emotionally attached to the dancers.”
Ford, who has worked in the Memphis arts community with Winters for years, has high praise for the artistic director. Winters not only works tirelessly with the Company d dancers and their families, Ford says, but is a wonderful liaison between master teachers in the arts community and the local special-needs population. The fact that Winters could convince someone of the caliber of Francis Roach to work with the company “speaks volumes about the quality of the program and the importance of what she’s doing.”
“I think Darlene is a saint,” says Roach. “In the two and a half years I have known her, she is tireless, constantly thinking of what will be good for this company. She has an obsession to help, and I mean that in the very best way.”
But Winters wants to talk only about her dancers. She tells of one man who danced for three years with his eyes shut, but now lifts his head and shines his beautiful blue eyes over the audience. Or how the dancers stood patiently and calmly at the beginning of one show when a technician messed up the music. How dancers who never said a peep now start conversations. How they walk with confidence into a new venue. How they have dreams of being cosmetologists, or chefs, or photographers.
As a child Winters spent endless hours with one best friend. She had known the girl for eight years before she found out she had a sister with Down syndrome. But in Company d, no one is hiding.
“Life is rough for these folks,” Barton says. “With Company d they are saying, ‘See me.’ They communicate through their dance. Lots of dancers strive to be abstract and show their bodies. Darlene lets Company d show their feelings, lets them be dramatic, lets their facial expressions speak.”
“I want them to understand that they’re artists. They don’t just get audience response because they’re special-needs [dancers],” Winters says. “I’ve done my best to develop them to be appreciated for their abilities. When you see them dance, what you see are dancers.”
To watch Peter Barton’s documentary Determined to Dance, visit blip.tv/file/2498724. Have tissues handy.
Tips for Teaching Dance to Special-Needs Children
By Colleen Snyder, MA, LCAT, BC-DMT, NCC
Few things in life are as rewarding as seeing the joy of movement on a student’s face. Even more exciting is when that student has a limitation and you helped her use her body in a creative and functional way. With the rise in the number of children diagnosed with developmental disorders, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and chromosomal disorders, dance teachers are being asked to welcome these children into their classrooms. Here are tips to consider if you take on the challenge.
- Be flexible. Special-needs classes may not look like other classes. You may play catch more frequently than practice pliés, and improvisation may be more interesting than any movement vocabulary you introduce.
- Consider hiring a pro. While you might want to teach the class, offering dance to special-needs children is not as simple as the altruistic desire to do so. A special-education teacher with a dance background or a dance/movement therapist may have a better understanding of their needs.
- Consider the diagnosis. Not all special-needs children fall under the same umbrella when you’re putting together a class. A high-functioning child with Asperger’s syndrome or Down syndrome may be able to keep up in a typical class for the first few years. A low-functioning child with autism may get more out of a class with a small group of 3 to 6 children with similar diagnoses.
- The more severe the social impairment, the smaller the class size should be. Keep classes short. Start off with 30 minutes and increase class length as the children gain experience and feel comfortable in the setting.
- Use props. Safe, colorful props can stimulate creativity and offer a means of connecting. Sharing a prop with a peer or a teacher is a social experience that could be a new achievement for some students.
- Get help. Whether you invite volunteers from the community or offer the position to older students as a community-service opportunity, have an extra set of eyes and hands available during your lesson.
- Rely on repetition. A predictable class will create a sense of comfort. Begin and end the class in the same way every week.
- Do not rule out the wheelchair. Children in wheelchairs want to move too. Even if they cannot physically participate, they will internalize the rhythms and breath of the movement. Classes with all wheelchair-bound participants can choreograph and perform their own recital pieces using the wheelchair as part of their bodies.
- Mainstreaming may work. If you place students by development rather than age, even low-functioning children may find success in a typical class. Assign an assistant to attend to their needs and escort them out for a break when necessary.
- Forget the aesthetics. When a child with special needs comes into class, it is about how the movement feels, not how it looks. The goal is not to make a perfect shuffle. It is about how that shuffle feels and the sound it makes. It is not the technique of jumping but learning to get off the floor and the feeling of rising into the air and then landing.
- Have clear limits. Know what you are capable of handling. Some children with special needs are not capable of being in a social environment. Some disorders can result in aggressive behaviors. These children are best served in a school or recreational facility that specializes in meeting their needs.
Enhance your dancers’ onstage charisma through acting exercises
By Karen White
It’s so common it’s almost cliché: A teacher spends hours drilling technique, perfecting turns, straightening lines, and cleaning up arm placements. Then, just as the class steps onstage, she yells, almost as an afterthought: “And smile!”
That’s easier said than done. While some dancers are inherently comfortable onstage, smiling easily, perhaps with a dynamic personality or natural charisma, others are not. Their eyes might stare out blankly or flit about from right to left; their smiles might be frozen, or they might bite a lip or otherwise show their discomfort.
But since, eventually, all dance routines are performed before an audience, dancers need to work as hard on their onstage personalities as they do on their choreography or technique. Acting exercises can help.
Dancers who hone their acting skills are also more versatile performers, able to “emote” effectively in a heartfelt lyrical solo or add a bit of comedy to a musical-theater routine. A contemporary piece might call for dancers who are angry, or passionate, or cool; perhaps the fun quotient of a hip-hop number could be pumped up if the dancers actually looked like they were having fun.
Adding acting exercises to a jazz or musical-theater lesson is a fun and not-too-time-consuming way to encourage dancers to use their faces and body language to best advantage. Try a different acting exercise every other or every third lesson, for about 15 minutes. If done regularly, acting exercises help dancers become less self-conscious, more confident in their performance, and more able to understand the “feeling” or “focus” of a piece.
Then, if the choreography requires some acting—whether it’s crying melodramatically over broken hearts in “Forget About the Boy” from Thoroughly Modern Millie or portraying a living doll in Coppélia—the dancers will be “ready for Broadway.”
Acting exercises for dancers
Younger children (ages 11 and under) will usually jump right into these exercises, while teens will hold back. If trying this with a class of teens for the first time, find out which students have acted in school plays or are naturally “hams,” and use them as leaders. Don’t force anyone. Usually the class will start laughing and having such a good time that even the shyest dancer will join in.
Pass the Face: A great way to break the acting ice, so to speak. The class stands in a circle and chooses a leader. The teacher calls out a facial expression such as “happy” or “sad.” The leader makes that expression, then turns to the person on her left, making eye contact (very important). When they do, that person “catches” the “face.” Continue to pass the “face” from person to person, contagious-style, until it gets back to the leader. Then the teacher calls out another expression and the game continues.
Important notes: After passing the face, the dancers must keep that expression, not drop back into their regular relaxed face. After all, a competition or recital dance can be 3 minutes long—that’s a long time to concentrate on a facial expression. No laughing, please; actors must remain “in character.”
Younger children will usually jump right into these exercises, while teens will hold back. Find out which students have acted in school plays or are naturally “hams,” and use them as leaders.
Some easy facial expressions include: happy, sad, bored, jealous, hot, tired, angry, scared, hungry, shocked. More advanced faces include: frustrated, confused, anxious, ditsy, nervous, suspicious.
Play Ball: Everyone partner up. It’s time to play ball, but of course, there are no balls in the room. One person picks up a “ball” and throws it to her partner, who must “catch” it. At first, teams can get comfortable “throwing” and “catching” whatever. Then, specify what kind of ball—is it a basketball? Soccer ball? Ping-pong ball or tennis ball? Balloon?
Important notes: Teams must hold their hands in a realistic manner—a basketball and a ping-pong ball differ greatly in size. Both players must follow the ball with their eyes, and the throwing “time” must be realistic; for example, if bouncing a tennis ball, the catcher must wait for the bounce to happen. This helps the dancers to focus and work together as a team. If they get really good at this, create two “teams” of four, put up an imaginary net, and let them play volleyball.
On the Catwalk: Pretend there is a model runway or “catwalk” in the center of the studio. The teacher is the announcer, or MC, who introduces “designer clothing” for different personalities. For example, the MC says, “And here is Kayla modeling the latest look for ‘Frustrated Mother.’ ” Kayla, then, could walk in very quickly, perhaps running her hands through her hair, pursing her lips, or shaking a fist at an invisible child. At the end of the runway she might cross her arms, tap her foot, and look at her watch, then throw her hands in the air as if the school bus is late again. When she exits the catwalk, the MC introduces the next student in line. The idea is that the dancers are modeling not clothing, but the attitude, walking style, and expression of a person who might wear that clothing.
Important notes: If the class hasn’t done this exercise before, I suggest giving them all a go at “Frustrated Mother/Father” or whatever you choose, before you switch to a new personality. It takes time for new actors to understand what you are looking for, which is using body language to create a personality. At first, they might all mimic the same movements, but there is always the one “hamasaurus” (William Shatner’s description of himself) in the room who will throw in something new or unexpected. After they’ve tried this exercise a few times, you can encourage them to “think quick” by giving each dancer a new personality when it’s his or her turn on the catwalk.
Some personalities include: Queen of England, Head Cheerleader, Mad Scientist, Class Valedictorian, Supermodel, Super Jock, Slacker Dude, Hip-Hop Gangsta, President of the United States (believe it or not, that one’s tough!), New Kid in School, Miss America, Secret Agent Man, Disney Channel TV Star, and Teenager in a Horror Movie.
Hooray for Hollywood: Teach the class an easy few counts of eight—loose steps like runs, jazz squares, chassés, or three-step turns. Keep the arms simple or give no arms at all. Then you, the teacher, become Cecil B. DeMille. Explain that the dance is going to be featured in a new movie you are filming, called Jungle Beat. Have them do the steps again, but as if they are in a hot, steamy jungle. They are free to add movements, such as wiping sweat from their brows, crumpling from the oppressive heat, or perhaps flailing about with their arms as if brushing vines out of the way.
Then, Mr. DeMille changes his mind—the movie’s now called Arctic Ice. Now the movements might include wrapped arms and shivers, blowing on cold fingers, and chattering teeth. Then Mr. DeMille might want to film Fun at a Slumber Party. Dancers should do the steps as if they’re having fun with friends—happy and joyful, a little silly and giddy.
The possibilities for “movies” are endless: Among the Clouds, The Noodle and Spaghetti Ball, Underwater Ballet, When Robots Attack, Lovesick and Lonesome, Dancing on Hot Coals, Toddlers’ Revenge, Zombie High School Musical.
Important notes: For beginners, ask the dancers for ideas before they move: “Now, when you’re underwater, how would you move? Slowly, float a bit. Right. What’s in the water? Waves, bubbles—right.” Then keep a sharp eye out for students who are doing something creative; point it out and share it with the class. “Look, Katie just came up for a breath of air! That’s really good!”
Happy Birthday: Stand in a circle. The leader picks up an imaginary box and hands it to the next dancer. It’s that dancer’s birthday, and he must open the box and show the rest of the class what’s inside. Of course, since there’s no box and no gift, the student must “show” the invisible gift through mime. This doesn’t have to be complex; if the gift is a watch, he “puts on” the watch, checks the time, and maybe runs out the door as if late. If it’s a basketball, he dribbles a bit, then shoots. How about squeezing into a sweater and then looking at yourself in the mirror? Putting an iPod in your pocket, placing the ear buds in your ears, then dancing to the music? Have the rest of the class guess what the gift is. Once someone has guessed successfully, that person hands a birthday gift to someone else.
Important notes: This is for a class with some acting experience or one that has advanced past the previous exercises. This exercise calls for improvisation—the teacher is not telling the dancers what to do; they have to use their own imaginations to decide what the gift is and how to “use” it in a realistic way.
Night at the Museum: Choose one person to be the museum curator and another to be a visitor. Everyone else stands in the center of the room. The teacher puts on some music and the center dancers jump and move about. When the music stops, they freeze in an interesting position. The curator then leads the visitor through the “museum” and points out the statues, giving them names that somehow fit their poses. For example, “Here is our Olympic athlete statue” for someone who looks like she’s running; or “Here is our supermodel statue” for someone posed like a model. The “statue” then comes to life and moves about before re-freezing. Curator and visitor move on to the next statue. When finished, choose a new curator and visitor.
Important notes: This is everyone’s favorite (perhaps because of fond memories of “Freeze Dance” from preschool days). Encourage the curator to be wildly creative in her naming—everyone can’t be “ballerina statue.” Encourage the dancers to use appropriate facial expressions.
Most important note
Have fun! Acting is freedom; it’s individuality; it’s letting loose and being wild and crazy and creative. If that doesn’t sound like your dancers, don’t panic. Everyone has this ability somewhere inside—remember how much these same students loved to be butterflies when they were toddlers. Be patient, and in time their stage personalities will shine.
Things to Keep in Mind
- You (as the teacher) will have to set the example. Don’t expect the students to jump around the room like monkeys while you stand in the corner with your arms folded. If you ask them to try something, be ready to do it first.
- There is no right or wrong. Look for good examples and point them out: “Wow, Mary, you look so cold you are making me feel cold!” Encourage creative ideas and discussion. (“Now, if we want to act cold, how would we show that?”)
- Some dancers, struggling for years to exactly reproduce a teacher’s movements, have never had an opportunity to be creative on their own. Be patient and positive.
There are oodles of books on acting games for children, which, of course, are heavily weighted toward exercises that involve talking. Still, many of them include plenty of good physical exercises that work for dancers. Here are a few to try:
- On Stage: Theater Games and Activities for Kids by Lisa Bany-Winters
- 101 More Drama Games for Children by Paul Rooyackers and Margreet Hofland
- Acting Games: Improvisations and Exercises by Marsh Gary Cassady
There’s no size that doesn’t fit Big Moves
By Karen White
Leyna McKenney loved to dance, but she quit when the awkward feeling of being the largest, tallest girl in the studio became too much to bear. Ten years later, preparing for an audition, she was shocked to realize that she didn’t even own a pair of dance shoes anymore.
“Once I started moving it was, ‘Hey, I remember this,’ ” McKenney says of her audition with Big Moves, a company that provides performance opportunities for plus-sized dancers. “I woke up the next morning so sore I couldn’t move. I just wanted to do it again.”
Other Big Moves dancers tell a similar tale. Loved to dance, loved to perform, yet in dance class or theater productions their size always seemed to overshadow their enthusiasm. Told they needed to “lose 30 pounds to get better roles” or to “suck in your butt” in ballet class. Cast as the mother or the funny friend—or a man. Ignored. Each had given up dance until Big Moves got them back onstage in a big way.
“This is a great vessel for proving what you can do, and doing what you want to do,” Michelle Keating of Somerville, Massachusetts, says. “It’s not just fat chicks dancing.”
Last spring, the 12 members of Big Moves Boston were preparing their spring show for two weekends of performances in Cambridge and one in Philadelphia. A musical theater original created by Big Moves founder Marina Wolf Ahmad, Fat Camp tells of a young camper expecting to attend one of those “lose weight quick” camps, but instead, learns the joys of “loving the skin you’re in.”
The mood was festive during an April dress rehearsal, held in an unglamorous exercise room of an assisted-living center in Jamaica Plain, a suburb of Boston. Troupe members—sizes 6 to 28—passed around Girl Scout cookies and finished up prop pieces while four dancers drilled a hip-hop number to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” The cast then launched into the show, singing and dancing, cracking jokes and “fat” puns, whipping through split-second costume changes, celebrating their size with panache.
“As a dance teacher, I feel strongly about the wonderful powers of dance,” says Ahmad, who started Big Moves in 2000 for plus-size women, then expanded its focus to include dancers of all sizes. “In the dance world, people make projections and assumptions based on size. We want to show through our dancers and our performances what’s possible.”
It was Ahmad’s experience in a junior college dance teacher certificate program that led to Big Moves. At age 28, older and larger than her classmates, Ahmad felt that her teachers neglected to give her feedback or comments that would help her improve her technique. She loved hip-hop, but in class she felt isolated, pushed aside and ignored, by both the teachers and the other students.
Online conversations with other plus-size dance students led her to put together a dance workshop, “A Day of Dance,” at a women’s health club in Redwood City, California. Thirty women studied hip-hop, samba, belly dance, and contact improvisation “in a nonjudgmental environment where they could feel safe,” she says.
During the next decade, Ahmad produced dance concerts, organized more workshops, taught hip-hop, and brought in choreographers to work with her company of large modern-dance and hip-hop–trained dancers. When Ahmad moved to Boston, she left a Big Moves chapter and eight-member company called the Phat Fly Girls running strong in San Francisco.
“Our mission is to make dance for everyone again,” Matilda St. John, a Phat Fly Girl since 2002 and co-director with Jessica Judd, says. “Dance is such a joyful experience. You don’t have to look a certain way to have access to that.”
St. John and Judd have moved the Phat Fly Girls away from hip-hop and into jazz/lyrical/contemporary dance, which they showcase in an annual concert-length show, at fund-raisers and community festivals, and in performance with West Coast bands or other dance groups. Each April brings their annual “Day of Dance,” free and open to the public, which this spring combined classes in ballet, lyrical jazz, and Bollywood with lectures on “how to love the body you have” and Phat Fly Girl demonstrations.
One of those who suffered through a weight-loss camp as a youngster, St. John recalls feeling excluded in dance class, urged to take jazz because “you can’t be serious about ballet with that body.” Big Moves, she says, is changing people’s perspectives of what larger-sized dancers can do.
“The public really hasn’t been given images of athletic fat dancers. In our lyrical pieces, there is always some concern when a fat girl goes to the floor,” she says. “People are surprised that we can do so much more than they thought.”
And it’s not about making the audience “forget” the dancers are large, St. John says, but embracing their size—just as the Phat Fly Girls themselves have done. “One of the biggest things I learned with Big Moves is that I have this body—use it. See my talent; see my size. We want the audience to celebrate how big and fierce we can be.”
In Boston, Big Moves performers include a professional opera singer, two belly dance specialists, dancers with pre-professional training, and musical theater performers, all strutting their stuff in burlesque shows and musical theater, in church halls and bars, on college campuses and at neighborhood festivals.
Sometimes it’s a tough sell. Ahmad knows Big Moves is often perceived as a novelty act. The troupe has to work against misconceptions of what larger dancers can and cannot do, she says, as well as social and traditional pressures that dancers must be a certain size. By the time the curtain falls, though, the audience has been won over.
“We’d like to encourage others to broaden their vision,” Ahmad says. “If you’re only working with thin dancers, it’s like a composer who only writes for the flute. We want access to the full orchestra—or, we say, at least consider it!”
Her dancers agree. McKenney, a resident of Brighton, Massachusetts, has been told “she’s inspiring” or she’s “brave.” She’d rather be told she’s a great dancer. Courtney Stanton of Somerville is waiting for the first review that “does not make some allusions that it’s near miraculous to get someone our size to have good leg extensions.”
“There is such a positive influence here—it’s so good to be around people who embrace everything about you. We bring just what any dancer wants to bring to an audience—grace and excitement and movement and joy.” —Erin Ayers
But on this dress rehearsal day, with a weekend performance in Cambridge on tap, there’s little griping. The performers, who have arrived in a cold, driving rain after a long day as administrative assistants, speech therapists, office workers, law assistants, or music teachers, are thankful for Big Moves and the opportunities it presents.
“There is such a positive influence here—it’s so good to be around people who embrace everything about you,” says Erin Ayers of Jamaica Plain, who had given up on dance and theater in college after a lifetime of training. “Our audiences are entertained and possibly educated. We bring just what any dancer wants to bring to an audience—grace and excitement and movement and joy.”
Jordan Crouser of Medfield, Massachusetts, Big Moves’ set designer, grew up thin in a plus-size family. After a lifetime of defending his family, he’s letting go of that past with Big Moves’ help. “Here we’re part of a group that’s positive—people reinforce that you look great,” he said. “You realize you have a choice. You don’t have to subscribe to what society says.”
Ahmad sees Big Moves on the brink of breaking out. Three years it performed at the Montreal Fringe Festival, winning the 2007 Spirit of the Fringe Award for its original show Lard (Like “Grease,” but Thicker). It’s a lot of work, admits Ahmad, who writes her shows, creates the choreography, markets and books the group, and even “shamelessly” stands outside other theatrical and dance events to hand out flyers. “There is not a built-in market for size-diverse dance,” she says. She receives encouraging emails from across the country and is looking for someone willing to resurrect Big Moves’ New York chapter, which is in a reorganizing stage.
The social climate is tough, too, Ahmad says, with so much emphasis on losing weight. Schools want to measure students’ body mass index and send reports home to parents. Dancers talk about being bumped from flights because of size, not being able to find clothing that fits, or hearing comments like, “Oh, that must be great exercise,” when they talk about upcoming Big Moves performances.
Big Moves will keep pushing for visibility, Ahmad says, creating opportunities for all dancers and bringing up the issue of size diversity in dance and theater. “It can be infuriating, pushing, pushing to do all this work,” she says. “People say, ‘They do so many shows, they must be a big [organization],’ but we are all volunteers. We get some donations and small grants, plus ticket sales, but mostly it’s just us, fueled by the fires of belief.”
Belief in dance, and belief in themselves. Big Moves has pushed its dancers to step out of their comfort zones, to try a solo, to dance sexy, or just to be onstage doing what they had always loved—and thought they had lost.
“People ask me what I do in my spare time,” McKenney says. “I used to say, ‘I’m in a dance troupe.’ Now I say I’m a dancer.”
For calendar listings, visit www.bigmoves.org.